James Huneker

H.L. Mencken

Baltimore Evening Sun/February 14, 1921

Two classes of men exist on this vast, lumbering, hideous, obscene ball of mud—the football of the devil. This of the first class, probably 99.99998743%, labor horribly all their lives long, that the rewards thereof may bring them a few moments of joy. Those of the other class, say .00001257%, get their joy out of their labor. To belong to this second class is to be one of the darlings of the gods—to enjoy daily such a huge good fortune that even the cherubim and seraphim, singing around the Throne, can scarcely be conceived as enjoying greater, save perhaps, on Sundays and legal holidays.

Well, the late James Huneker was one of these darlings. I have never known a man who had a better time of it in this world. Nor can I think of one that I have not known—not even Roosevelt, for Roosevelt was always gnawed by bounderish ambition and puerile vanities, and he died a disappointed and a bitter man. Huneker, of course, occasionally had to do without, too. Early in life, for example, he wanted to be a piano virtuoso—a romantic fellow with a shad-belly and long hair, eternally touring Europe, America, Asia, Africa and Oceania, the pet of flappers and aesthetic multiparae, the hero of love-affairs with harpists, countesses, Brunnhildes, and Marguerites de Gauthier. This noble aspiration, alas, came to naught. His thumbs, to the end, intruded gravel into the string of pearls. But the sharp edge of grief, if it was ever sharp at all, had been dulled long before I met him. By that time, having reached the middle years, he was content to play like a gentleman—Chopin as a steady diet, with Czerny to keep his knuckles oiled. Piano­playing was now mere play: work was criticism. And what a riotous time he had of it doing that work! What a stupendous gusto he put into it, and what a homeric joy he got out of it!


The first time I ever met Huneker was at Luchow’s famous tabernacle of beer in Fourteenth Street, now a Herculaneum. Here he and Rafael Joseffy used to sit of an evening, and here he transacted most of his critical and personal business during the day. We sat down to Rinderbrust mit Meerrettig at one o’clock; at six, when I had to leave, Huneker had his tenth Seidel of Pilsner before him and was launching into an intricate and enormously interesting account of the scandals at Bayreuth in 1886. What I carried away, at first flush, seemed no more than an impression of having read 20 volumes folio of a sort of international Town Topics—a meticulous and astounding chronicle of the drinking habits, love affairs, debts, private quarrels, warts, wens, blood pressures and tastes in victualry of every author, artist, composer, singer, conductor and actor in Europe, from Auber to Zola.

But that was only the first dizziness. Sorting out the loot the next day, I began to perceive that a sharp and searching criticism had leavened all this gossip-that when Huneker described the collars that Richard Strauss wore and the girl that Nietzsche fell in love with at Sils Maria, he was also, in his vivid and disarming way, delivering sound criticisms of “Ein Heldenleben” and “Jenseits von Gut und Böse.” The better I got to know him, the more I understood this method, and the more I came to value it. For of all the things that he brought back with him from his early years in Paris, perhaps the best of all was the French critical doctrine that the work of art is inseparable from the artist—that what a man does is infinitely and inescapably conditioned by what he is. Huneker never had any doubt of it. Whenever he heard of a new man his first curiosity was always about the man; the man’s work could wait. It was by this route that he enriched his criticism with its innumerable small illuminations and got into it its extraordinary brilliancy and intimacy, its air of confidential revelation, its incomparable human interest. And it was thus that, in his own way, following his own sure instinct, he met the test for critics that Benedetto Croce sets up, following Goethe, Carlyle and all the royal line—the test that asks of criticism, not only a clear account of what the artist has done, but also a clear account of what he tried to do, and wherefore, and why.


This habit of studying the artist as a man was responsible, I believe for most of Huneker’s foreignness—a quality always urged against him in high dudgeon by the pedagogues who disliked him. He kept his eyes turned across the water because it was simply impossible for him to imagine a normal American being  a great artist. Playing the fiddle is not a mere matter of irritating four wires of catgut and copper with a switch from a horse’s tail; it is also a matter of inner attitudes, of private metaphysics, even of metabolism. One simply cannot image it done competently by a man who will leave the hall after it is over to be initiated into the Moose, or to attend a watch-night meeting in some forlorn chapel on a suburban dump, or to hear a lecture at the Harvard Club, or to sup on Uneeda biscuits and grape juice.

So in all the other arts; so doubly  on their creative sides. Huneker was the first American critic, after Poe, who was also an artist himself; all the rest were mere grammarians, theme-correctors, floggers of sophomores. Being an artist, he knew how cruelly unfavorable the national atmosphere was to the claim—how pitifully unlikely it was that Allentown, or Kansas City, or even New York would ever produce a Brahms. What he saw around him was simply a gigantically elaborated correctness—a system of taboos almost Polynesian in its scope—a race of people that had come even to exult and dream by a sort of goose-step. Where was there room for the gigantic eccentricity of the artist, his great disdain of Philistine conformity, his eager and iconoclastic curiosity, his rebellion against all the pruderies and holy joys of the greengrocer and the cheesemonger? “I am against tripe-sellers in the market­place,” said Huneker in one of his last books. But here tripe­selling was respectable, honorable, almost a sacred rite. It was no wonder that he was forever sneaking aboard a Doppelschraubeuschnellpostdampfer and seeking adventures for his soul in foreign parts. He could savor Wagner and Villiers de L’isle-Adam; he could even understand Maeterlinck and Yeats; but Henry van Dyke was incomprehensible to him, and the lady novelists simply maddened him.


No man, of course, can stand quite clear of his country; its epistemology may sicken him, but he nevertheless breathes its air. Huneker had his moments when the Americano engulfed the artist. You will find the records of some of them in Steeplejack, a book of his decline, and full of doubts and hesitations. He was swept, in a weak mood, into the flaming orbit of Roosevelt, the incomparable mountebank. He parroted patriotic tosh. He tried to convince the pedagogues against all the evidence that he was actually a sturdy supporter of the national letters. He allowed the Saturday Evening Post brethren to hang him with the ribbon of the National Institute of Arts and Letters—Beethoven elected to the Elks. He yielded to sentimentality, and praised frauds and dunderheads.

But not often. Steeplejack was written by diabetes, not by Huneker. Go back to his earlier books—Iconoclasts, The Pathos of Distance, Melomaniacs, Visionaries, above all, Old Fogy. Here is a body of criticism that is stupendously alive—criticism made into an art as brilliantly vivid as music. Here is stuff that is sound and important. The man who did it was no common man.


(Source: University of North Texas, Microfilm Collection)

The works of H.L. Mencken and other American journalists are now freely available at The Archive of American Journalism.