A very deplorable fact is that the great body of literary criticism is mainly perfunctory. This is not due to a lack of ability or to a lack of knowledge. It is due to the fact that most of it is from the pens of newspaper writers who have no time to elaborate their ideas. They are in a hurry, and what they write is hurried. Under these circumstances it is not unnatural that they should take their cues from inadequate sources and give to the public opinions that are either conventional or that have no reasonable basis.
All this is the outcome of the conditions and circumstances of American life. There is no demand for sound criticism any more than there is a demand for great poetry. We have a leisure class, but its tastes run towards horses, yachting and athletic sports, in imitation of the English young men who occasionally honor these shores with their presence. The imitation, after all, is a limping one. The young Englishman of leisure is not only fond of outdoor sports, but of books. He has culture and taste, and patronizes literature with as much enthusiasm as he does physical amusements. If our leisure class is to imitate the English, it would be better if the imitation extended somewhat in the direction of culture.
The American leisure class--the class that might be expected to patronize good literature and to create a demand for sound, conservative criticism--is not only fond of horses, but is decidedly horsey. It is coarse and uncultivated. It has no taste in either literature or art. It reads few books and buys its pictures in Europe by the yard.
We are led to these remarks by the wholly inadequate verdict that has recently been given in some of the most prominent newspapers as to the merits of Mark Twain's new book, "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn." The critics seem to have gotten their cue in this instance from the action of the Concord library, the directors of which refused the book a place on their shelves. This action, as was afterwards explained, was based on the fact that the book was a work of fiction, and not because of the humorous characteristics that are popularly supposed to attach to the writings of Mr. Clemens. But the critics had got their cue before the explanation was made, and they straightway proceeded to inform the reading public that the book was gratuitously coarse, its humor unneccessarily broad, and its purpose crude and inartistic.
Now, nothing could be more misleading than such a criticism as this. It is difficult to believe that the critics who have condemned the book as coarse, vulgar and inartistic can have read it. Taken in connection with "The Prince and the Pauper," it marks a clear and distinct advance in Mr. Clemens's literary methods. It presents an almost artistically perfect picture of the life and character in the southwest, and it will be equally valuable to the historian and to the student of sociology. Its humor, which is genuine and never-failing, is relieved by little pathetic touches here and there that vouch for its literary value.
It is the story of a half illiterate, high-spirited boy whose adventures are related by himself. The art with which this conception is dealt with is perfect in all its details. The boy's point of view is never for a moment lost sight of, and the moral of the whole is that this half illiterate boy can be made to present, with perfect consistency, not only the characters of the people whom he meets, but an accurate picture of their social life. From the artistic point of view, there is not a coarse nor vulgar suggestion from the beginning to the end of the book. Whatever is coarse and crude is in the life that is pictured, and the picture is perfect. It may be said that the humor is sometimes excessive, but it is genuine humor--and the moral of the book, though it is not scrawled across every page, teaches the necessity of manliness and self-sacrifice.