June 3, 2012

James on Calvert: no general attention

On June 3, 1875, the Nation published a review by Henry James of the Baltimore-born editor and author George Henry Calvert. Calvert was particularly known for his biographies of literary figures including Goethe and Shakespeare. By 1875 and the publication of his Essays Aeshetical, however, he had become obscure. "Mr. Calvert occasionally puts forth a modest volume of prose or verse which attracts no general attention," James (pictured at right) began his review, "but which, we imagine, finds adequate appreciation among scattered readers."

In this case, however, James happily recommended this particular book collecting "essays on subjects connected with art and letters."  The author is a perfect scholar, he writes, and his writing has "an aroma of genuine culture." His biggest critique is that Calvert is vague and offers judgments which are "a trifle too ethereal and to a style considerably too florid." The result, however, is a mix of both taste and leisure, James concludes.

Calvert's book also includes a section condemning grammatical and literary "vulgarities" that have crept into the English language. James, however, disagrees: "We share Mr. Calvert's extreme enmity with regard to none of these phrases." Nevertheless, Calvert's essay is interesting today as the language continues to evolve (one wonders what he would think of the internet). As Calvert writes:

Word are the counters of thought; speech is the vocalization of the soul; style is the luminous incarnation of reason and emotion. Thence it behooves scholars, the wardens of language, to keep over words a watch as keen and sleepless as a dutiful guardian keeps over his pupils. A prime office of this guardianship is to take care lest language fall into loose ways; for words being the final elements into which all speech resolves itself, if they grow weak by negligence or abuse, speech loses its firmness, veracity, and expressiveness.

* This essay is available in the collection Henry James: Literary Criticism (1984) published by the Library of America.

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