The Charlotte News
SUNDAY, MAY 9, 1937
They Wouldn't Write
--By W. J. Cash
Site ed. note: Perhaps, Cash effectively answers his own query here in the first line of the piece: For Cabell talks in Beyond Life of the books "never written" as forming a library of manuscripts--effectively alluding to books set down on paper but never published, or at least such is one interpretation. Cabell's reference is to the poetical works--the ones that were not susceptible to a ready marketplace willing to accept them in their time. So in that perhaps may lie at least part of the answer to Cash's question as to why these largely untapped talents, published mainly in pedestrian works, never put forth product in a more stimulating medium for general circulation. Or perhaps Cash's questions resolve more of the mystery...
SOMEWHERE in "Beyond Life", I think, James Branch Cabell has dealt at length with books that never got written. But I believe there is nowhere in existence any extended treatment of the case of the authors who never quite came off.
There are, indeed, a good many studies of the celebrated case of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. But Coleridge is not exactly the sort I have in mind. Hailed by Lamb and Hazlitt and, indeed, by most of his contemporaries, as the greatest man in the Nineteenth Century, Coleridge did spend most of his long life in a strange inaction and produced not a tenth part of what he perhaps ought to have produced. But in the quality of his work, he nevertheless measured up fully to his responsibilities. Nobody reads the "Table Talk" anymore, to be sure, and even his literary criticism has lost much of the great estimation it once commanded. But the magnificent roll of the verses published in his youth atones for everything else--and makes his place in history quite secure.
The men I mean to speak of, however, are such men as plainly having a great deal of ability, still failed, or because of the circumstances in which fate had cast them, were unable, ever to do anything quite worthy of their talents.
Flash And Failure
There was Richard Burton, for instance. Burton, according to those who knew him, was a man of the highest capacity. He certainly was master of a style which was tremendously individual, cramped and abrupt, but still capable, when he chose, of being a remarkably effective instrument and even of achieving a kind of strange unconventional beauty. He literally had the energy of a Gargantua. He had patience. He made himself into one of the greatest scholars of his time--knowing more, perhaps, about Arabia than anyone else has ever known save only Charles Doughty, and ranking as one of the chief authorities on the Near East at large. Withal, he remained a man of the world in the world, a fellow full of imagination and the vices of earthly living, a fellow with an enormous store of experience with all sorts and conditions of men and women over half the globe. And yet--. He did not fail to do a great deal of work, surely. Most people know that he was the translator of an enormous edition of the Arabian Nights and the author of the curious crabbed verses called "The Kasidah." In addition, he turned out highly interesting accounts of his daring excursions into the forbidden cities of Mecca and Medina ("A Journey to Mecca and Al-Medinah") and of his explorations in Africa ("First Footsteps in East Africa") as well as such oddities as "The Book of the Sword" and "The Sotadic Zone". But the body of his work is still to be ranked as being at best somewhat superior hack work and much of it is rank puerility. Judged by the standard of his supposed capacities, by the standard of a capacity actually proved in flashes, the man was indubitably a failure.
Is it possible that he simply did not have as great potentialities as have been assigned to him? It is possible of course but it seems unlikely. Rather, there was simply some strange flaw in the man which somehow made it impossible for him ever to bring his equipment to play upon a genuinely suitable theme. Or perhaps it was only the inscrutable flow of circumstance that lies at the root of the matter.
Another indifferent case is that of Hartley Coleridge. His friends maintained both before and after his death that he had in him to bring almost as great luster to the Coleridge name as Samuel Taylor himself. But he died practically without literary issue, a fact which has been commonly explained by saying that he was sick during all the brief years of his manhood. Sick he undoubtedly was, but in view of the career of such a man as Robert Lewis Stevenson, probably not too sick to realize the great part of his alleged possibilities. Sickness in his case was in all probability, and in great measure, an escape mechanism--at least an excuse. And what I would like to know is what lay behind that escape mechanism or that excuse. What was the need for it? Did he doubt in the depths of his soul that he could do the fine things laid to his powers? And was that doubt justified by the facts? Or was it simply the child of one of those blind, unreasoning, irresistible fears which have indubitably ruined the careers of many men?
Yet another indifferent case was that of the Irishman, Will Carleton. Carleton is commonly set down as a sort of inferior Charles Lever--a manufacturer of stock Mike-and-Paddy hokum. And in great part that is justified. Nevertheless, in some of his short stories he showed himself to be an admirable delineator of the Irish peasant as he really lives and breathes--perhaps as good a one as has ever yet appeared. And his prose was sometimes simply magnificent--had in it always that haunting Celtic poetry which we think of today as belonging above all to John Millington Synge. The man undeniably could have written great and authentic novels of the Irish soil.
The Sound And The Shoddy
And if he didn't? The fashion of the times was partly to blame. And there was the fact that he had no formal schooling, that as the son of a peasant himself he had a very devil of a time in coming to be an author--and in order to live he had to trim and hedge at every step of his career. But when all that is said, it is perhaps true, too, that there was a singularly blind spot in him, that with all his genuine capacity as an artist, he was natively incapable of distinguishing what was sound from what was shoddy.
I cast these names out at random. There are dozens or hundreds of others in the history of literature. And their cases deserve more study than they have ever got.
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