Retrospect

[Note: This is taken from Hamilton Wright Mabie's Books and Culture.]

retrospect 

The books of four great writers have been used almost exclusively by way of illustration throughout this discussion of the relation of books to culture. This limited selection may have seemed at times too narrow and rigid; it may have conveyed an impression of insensibility to the vast range and the great variety of literary forms and products, and of indifference to contemporary writing. It needs to be said, therefore, that the constant reference to Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, and Goethe has been made for the sake of clearness and force of illustration, and not, in any sense, as applying an exclusive principle of selection. The books of life are to be found in every language, and are the product of almost every age; and no one attains genuine culture who does not, through them, make himself familiar with the life of each successive generation. To be ignorant of the thought and art of one's time involves a narrowness of intelligence which is inconsistent with the maturity of taste and ripeness of nature which have been emphasized in these chapters as the highest and finest fruits of culture. The more generous a man's culture becomes, the more catholic becomes his taste and the keener his insight. The man of highest intelligence will be the first to recognize the fresh touch, the new point of view, the broader thought. He will bring to the books of his own time not only a trained instinct for sound work, but a deep sympathy with the latest effort of the human spirit to express itself in new forms. So deep and real will be his feeling for life that he will be eager to understand and possess every fresh manifestation of that life. However novel and unconventional the new form may be, it will not make its appeal to him in vain.

It remains true, however, that literature is a universal art, expressive and interpretative of the spirit of humanity, and that no man can make full acquaintance with that spirit who fails to make companionship with its greatest masters and interpreters. The appeal of contemporary books is so constant and urgent that it stands in small need of emphasis; but the claims of the rich and splendid literature of the past are often slighted or ignored. The supreme masters of an art ought to be the objects of constant study and thought; there is more of life, truth, and beauty in them than in their fellow-artists of narrower range of experience and artistic achievement. For this reason these greatest interpreters of the human spirit are in no sense exclusively of the past; they are of the present and the future. To know them is not only to know the particular periods in which they wrote, but to know our own period in the deepest sense. No man can better prepare himself to enter into the formative life of his time than by thoroughly familiarizing himself with the greatest books of the past; for in these are revealed, not the secrets of past forms of life, but the secrets of that spirit whose historic life is one unbroken revelation of its nature and destiny. It is, therefore, no disparagement of the great company of writers who have been the secretaries of the race in all ages to fasten attention upon the claims of the four men of genius whom the world has accepted as the supreme masters of the art of literature, and to point out again the immense importance of their works in the educational life of the individual and of society.

It cannot be said too often that literature is the product of the continuous spiritual activity of the race; that it cannot be arbitrarily divided into periods save for mere convenience of arrangement; and that it is impossible to understand and value its latest products unless one is able to find their place and discern their value in the order of a spiritual development. To secure an adequate impression of this highest expression of the human spirit one must keep in view the work of the past quite as definitely as the work of the present; in such a broad survey there is a constant deliverance from the rashness of contemporary judgments, and from that narrowness of feeling which limits one's vital contact with the life of the race to the products of a single brief period.

In any attempt to indicate the fundamental significance of the art of literature in the educational development of the individual and of society there must also be a certain repetition of idea and of illustration. This limitation, if it be a limitation, is inherent in the very nature of the undertaking. Literature is, for purposes of comment and exposition, practically inexhaustible; its themes are as varied and as numerous as the objects upon which the mind can fasten and about which the imagination can play. But while its forms and products are almost without number, this magnificent growth has, in the last analysis, a single root, and in these brief chapters the endeavor has been made, very inadequately, to bring the mind to this deep and hidden unity of life and art. Information, instruction, delight, flow in a thousand rivulets from as many books, but there is a spring of life which feeds all these separate streams. From that unseen source flows the vitality which has given power and freshness to a host of noble works; from that source vitality also flows into every mind open to its incoming. A rich intellectual life is characterized not so much by profusion of ideas as by the application of a few formative ideas to life; not so much by multiplicity of detached thoughts as by the habit of thinking. The genius of Carlyle is evidenced not by prodigal growth of ideas, but by an impressive interpretation of life through the application to all its phenomena of a few ideas of great depth and range. And this is true of all the great writers who have given us fresh views of life from some central and commanding height rather than a succession of glimpses or outlooks from a great number of points. The closer the approach to the central force behind any course of development, the fewer in number are the elements involved. The rootage of literature in the spiritual nature and experience of the race is the fundamental fact not only in the history of this rich and splendid art, but in its relation to culture. From this rootage flows the vitality which imparts immortality to its noblest products, and which supplies an educational element unrivalled in its enriching and enlarging quality.
 


       

 

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