Newark Advocate/July 28, 1949
I have been threatened with a fate which might be worse than death by Henry Seidel Canby, an antediluvian crud who has been mewling away about the art of writing for the last two thousand years, and pompously presuming to toss compliments to his betters, such as and specifically me.
I am scared stiff because Mr. Canby has rebuked my people for using in an ad in Editor and Publisher an excerpt from a piece that he wrote for the Saturday Review of Literature, which, if you never heard of it, as you probably haven’t, is a semi-confidential trade-paper, read almost exclusively by its own staff and a limited coterie of log-rollers.
It was quite a piece. The title was “From Stevenson to Pegler” and while that might seem to have a nasty sound as “From the Sublime to the Ridiculous” or “From Pegler To Henry Seidel Canby,” it was meant real nice at the time. Mr. Canby, who is sometimes called professor in the spirit of those who call Harry Truman professor when he spins the piano stool, was doing a review—that is practically all he has done all his life; second-guess the work of real writers—about a book called “Presbyterian Pirate: A Portrait of Stevenson,” by Doris N. Dalglish.
For five pedantic columns, he dribbled along, and then he quoted as an awful example a paragraph by some bleeding-heart of the first New Deal who got bogged in his own ostentation and went down blubbering.
Well, here is where I take my life in my hands, for I am now going to tell you what gramp said about me.
“And finally,” he said, and this after pushing even Stevenson around for a too-elusive subtlety, “a passage from that most hard-hitting and expressive of contemporary American journalists, Westbrook Pegler:
“Washington. On the same day that Professor Samuel Bottomley, the economic herb-doctor, was expounding his sterling remedy for the ills that afflict a world come down of its own pizen, your correspondent was walking down Pennsylvania Avenue at dusk, somewhat dazed by the conflict of advice submitted by the great congress of tailboard specialists called together by Senator Elmer Thomas, of Oklahoma.
“From near and far they had come a’running, each with his own compound of sassafras and slippery elm, buchu and pumpwater, rhubarb and catnip. There had been one, wearing aj spade beard, who made a speech! and wound up with a homemade; poem about a ten-dollar bill.: There had been another who received only 20 per cent when his bank failed and entrusted that to another bank which also failed and paid a mere ten per cent, which he now placed, in a third bank just before that one closed, too. He thought happy days would come again if the Government would pay off the deposits of the bankrupt banks.”
“This is excellent English,” the old boy said, “I do not quote it to scorn it. On the contrary, here is what we have learned by forgetting fine writing and the polished phrase, by ceasing to be literary.”
If I may interrupt Mr. Canfield, if that’s the name, it will be to say that he doesn’t know fine writing, the polished phrase and literature when he reads them, because that low-down, homespun kind of we-all talk ain’t wrote quick and careless but careful and deliberate. That there is art, doc.
“But Mr. Peeler’s job needs no overtones,” says he. “Mr. Pegler’s style is admirable for Mr. Pegler’s purpose though even so Montaigne, or Bacon, or Charles Lamb could teach him to make the arrow stick in the wound.
” ‘(The only one who ever said I didn’t write mean enough.) Perhaps, like H. G. Wells, he doesn’t want to write for even the immediate posterity that reads a second edition. But the language goes on even if its writers are satisfied to quit when the whistle blows. An English style with a single rhythm, and that colloquial, and with words plucked as they come, will grow weaker not stronger. And too many young writers, lacking his homely genius, want to write like Mr. Pegler’.”
When the syndicate was scratching up copy for an ad that time, Mr. Greene, the head man, said, “Didn’t anybody ever say anything good about your stuff?
“Once,” I said. “An old geezer named Seidlitz in some little old publicity sheet for the book publishers. Saturday Review.”
So we riffled the files and got it out and actually all we did was snitch a little smitch of it. “Westbrook Pegler—the hard-hitting and most expressive of contemporary journalists” is all we said.
A little later a letter comes.
“This editorial, which had reference to Pegler’s style only, and was written a number of years ago, has been quoted withjout my permission and without the permission of The Saturday Review where it is copyrighted. It must be immediately withdrawn and the offense not repeated. Yours very truly, Henry Seidel Canby.”