May 19, 1923
IN DEFENSE OF A MODERATELY HIGH BROW
By ROBERT LYND
It is not at all easy to defend one’s tastes against people who read the books that everybody is reading. They are offended if one refuses to read the books; they are still more deeply offended if one reads them and dislikes them. They are convinced that in literature, if nowhere else, the voice of the people is the voice of God, and that no opposition to it can be sincere.
‘You highbrows …” a man began one of his sentences in the course of an argument the other day, and, though you will hardly believe it, it was I that he meant. I do not quite know what a highbrow is, but I doubt if I have a claim to a place in that illustrious company. As a matter of fact, I am so far from being a highbrow that I am even a person who calls other people highbrows. I am a little bewildered, I confess, when I find the people whom I call highbrows calling still other people highbrows. I cannot help thinking that there must be a continuous progression in these matters from high to higher and highest, till we come at last to the Supreme Highbrow, who sits up aloft and alone, despising us all, and by us all despised. I should not care to be the Supreme Highbrow. It would be like being King of the North Pole. He must be horribly lonely. What a desert the world must seem to him, that does not contain one solitary person of good taste except himself! It is bad enough to realize that nearly everybody except one’s self is vulgar, but to realize that even the highbrows are vulgar must be an experience almost unbearable in its poignancy. There is this, at least, being an ordinary highbrow, that you will have a fair amount of company. You are a member of a club of a kind, all the members of which say more or less the same thing, and applaud one another for saying it. Where there is fellowship there is happiness, even if it is a fellowship of highbrows or Plymouth Brethren, and it must be pleasant to know that you are one of the saved, provided a few other people are saved, too. It is for this reason that highbrows are usually to be found in companies or, as they are called, coteries. ‘We be of the blood,’ they say to one another, and they hunt in packs. They pursue the same quarry, and they worship the same gods, though they change the latter from season to season.
Against the authors that everybody is reading, they place the authors that everybody ought to be reading; and, indeed, if you tried to keep up both with the popular fashions of the hour and the highbrow fashions of the hour, you would have very little time left for enjoying literature. I am not sure that fashions of both kinds are not taken too seriously. In dress and in table manners there is something to be said for making concessions to the age; but I do not like to see a man as miserable over having liked the wrong book as he would be if he had worn the wrong tie.
Some people look on these things as equally important, and they would impose taste in the arts upon us as a sort of intellectual evening-dress. Books do not seem to me to lend themselves to this. After all, one dresses as a duty, but one reads for pleasure. Hence, there are fewer imperatives in reading than in dress. ‘Oh, you must read it!’ women — and even men — sometimes say to you. I deny it. I may read it, though probably I shall not. If you say ‘must,’ I will certainly not read it till next year. The man who persuades me most easily to read a book is the man who says simply, ‘You would like it.’ That is a reason I can understand. All else is merely the insolence of a despot, whether the despot be a coterie of the multitude.
At the same time, if popularity among the highbrows is no guaranty that a book is worth reading, I cannot see why popularity with the multitude should be regarded as evidence of a more important kind. Not that I have any quarrel with the multitude; but I feel sure that the multitude, like myself, is capable of error. Luckily in politics the multitude always divides itself into at least two parts, so that it is possible to abuse a popular favorite without being accused of pretentiousness. You are not accused of being a highbrow if you attack Mr. Lloyd George, or denounced as a superior person if you refuse to vote for Mr. Bonar Law.
Recently, it is true, there has crept into use the word ‘ bourgeois,’ which is applied to nearly everybody who would not vote for Mr. Newbold. But on the whole it is still regarded as natural that opinions on politics should differ, and no one would dream of laying it down as an axiom that because a politician is immensely popular he must be one of the world’s great and good men. Mr. Bottomley was immensely popular, but it did not prove that he was a statesman. As a matter of fact, the only thing that popularity proves about a man is that he is popular. He may be popular for good reasons or for bad. He may win our applause either by appealing to our virtues or by pandering to our vices.
Very few human beings know what they want — human beings in the mass seem never to know — and the popular man is simply the man who can temporarily make up their minds for them. This is a special form of genius, but it is not a high form of genius, though it may be allied with this. It is a gift that may be in the possession of either a saint or a scoundrel.
It is reasonable to believe, then, that if it is largely a toss-up whether a good statesman or a bad statesman is the more popular, so it is largely a toss- up whether a good author or a bad author is the more popular. There are, I know, people so censorious of success that they cannot believe good of anyone who has achieved it. But these are not superior persons; they are, rather, persons suffering from a sense of their own inferiority, and they long to shoot down the eagles only in order to produce a scheme of things in which the sparrow will seem a mighty bird. Alas, if they but knew that a sparrow itself can be a charming little bird, and that there is no need for envy in so roomy a world as this!
But detraction of this kind is the result of a morbid condition of the mind, and it hardly enters into the so-called highbrow criticism of various popular authors. The moderate highbrow, as we may call him, does not contend that because an author is popular he is therefore bad. There are highbrows who praise Mr. Conrad; there are highbrows who praise Mr. Kipling; there are highbrows who praise Mr. Bennett and Mr. Wells. The Supreme Highbrow, no doubt, would condemn all these authors, but then the Supreme Highbrow condemns almost for the love of condemnation, like a Calvinist. He is afflicted with elephantiasis of the turned-down thumb and of the turned-up nose.
The lesser highbrows, though they are inclined to exaggerate the importance of their personal discoveries among authors at the expense of the discoveries made by the multitude or by time, are for the most part people who obtain a great deal of pleasure from good work in literature, and who can forgive a book even for being popular if only it is excellent. They do not deny that the voice of the people is the voice of God; they deny merely that the voice of the people for the time being is the voice of God. As I have already said, they often attempt to substitute the voice of the coterie for the time being for the voice of the people for the time being. That they are skeptics in regard to the latter, however, is all to their credit; and, in so far as they are this, they are worthy of defense.
The highbrow, from one point of view, may be defined as a moralist among books. He distinguishes between good and evil in the conduct, if not of life, at least of phrases. This, it must be admitted, is better than having no morals at all. The chief flaw in the morality of the highbrow, as in the morality of many earnest men, is that it tends to become intolerant. Schopenhauer was on the side of the highbrows in this matter, and maintained that while tolerance was necessary in religion and politics there was no room for it in literary criticism. This, however, was only because Schopenhauer himself found a bad author more offensive than a bad man.
I do not understand this hatred of bad authors, who are usually, indeed, only average authors. I should as soon think of hating the average grocer. Neither of them has gone into business, as the Americans say, for his health, and of the two the grocer gets incomparably the greater reward. Even the most successful of bad authors achieves only a tiny success compared to the most successful City man or manufacturer. And, as for this fame, it lasts a little longer than the life of a fly.
Worst of all, the bad author knows at the back of his mind that he cannot even write. He knows that all his tumultuous output of best-selling books, if weighed in the balances of literature, would not sink the scale against one good lyric that cannot, perhaps, even find a publisher. He is pitiable, not only in his passion for recognition, but in his failure to obtain it from those whose good opinion he most longs for. He sometimes tells us, when he has been hurt by criticism, that he does not care about the opinion of ‘intellectuals,’ and that the final arbiter in literature is the average man.
There is some wisdom in this attitude, if only he were speaking the truth. No wise man will take too seriously the opinions of other people, whether they are ‘intellectuals’ or not, and the average man is at least the House of Peers that must ultimately pass every bill of fame. But the popular author sets so great store by popularity that he cannot endure the knowledge that a compact minority exists which cares nothing for him. All his woes, it seems to me, are due to the fact that his books are both published and judged as literature. If publishers would only divide their books into those which claim to be regarded as literature and those which do not, and stamp them accordingly, the realities of the situation would be much clearer.
Literature is a word that in the course of time has come to have a very special meaning. It means prose or verse that has come from an original imagination and that has in it some quality of possible permanence. All the rest is either journalism or manufactured goods. To say this is not to disparage journalism. Journalism is in its own way as important as literature, and the great journalist, like the great physician, performs services none the less great because they are devoted to the needs of the present hour. As for manufactured goods, they too need not be despised, if they are reasonably well made. But they should not be produced in the same sort of covers as literature. They should be brought out in tin, like so many popular goods.
As books are at present published, simple readers are only confused when they find a book of, say, Mr. Conrad’s short stories presenting much the same appearance as Should She Have Done It? No wonder that, in such circumstances, the poor highbrow becomes anxious about other people’s state of soul and is continually tempted to cry, ‘Be not deceived by appearances!’ He hates to see people eating tinned salmon under the delusion that they are eating the best salmon from Scotland. In this he is at least protesting against a lie. If only he were a little less pleased with himself as he protests, and not so distressed about the condition of people who, after all, get a great deal of pleasure from eating tinned salmon, he might even do the State some service.