The Charlotte News
SUNDAY, JULY 5, 1936
Criticism Of Criticism
Or, Rather, Some
By A Young Man Who Wrote As He Pleased.
By W. J. CASH
Site ed. note: Cash borrows his title, more or less, from an essay by H.L. Mencken from 1919, "Criticism Of Criticism Of Criticism", (available online from the University of North Carolina at http://metalab.unc.edu/docsouth/mencken/menu.html) in which Mencken posited that the art of criticism, when properly practiced, acts as a catalyst between the artist and the spectator, to better afford--or to afford in the first instance--some appreciation of the artistry; proper criticism does not judge a work morally or denounce it for poor taste or disagreement with a prevailing view but determines what the objective of the artist is and then only whether that objective has been fulfilled. This concept seems to dovetail with Cash's notions of the artist's obligations espoused--quite humorously--here, regarding the imperative that one must speak the truth one sees, regardless of objurgation and regardless of whether that truth may in some way be upsetting to the status quo and its adherents. This, Cash maintains, is the highest form of loyalty to humanity, transcending all other aspects, and thus makes the truth-teller free of the charge of being a traitor to any region, country, or cause for the telling.
Some seven years ago, I sat me down and indited an article on the South for the touch-and-go pages of the American Mercury, then under the editorship, of course, of Henry L. Mencken. And thereafter began a deluge of editorials and fan mail which decidedly left me white and shaken before the ordeal was over--some fifty editorials, forty-eight of which arose from within the borders of the Confederacy and the other two from officious Yankee sheets suddenly taken down with a great tenderness for Dixie--some fifty editorials and God alone recalls how many fan letters.
And out of all those editorials, only one--written by Grover Hall, of the Montgomery Advertiser--found anything nice to say about me. Mr. Hall did allow that I wrote well, but for the rest, he proceeded to opine at great length that I was unmistakably an idiot. And as for the others--I used to take them and walk down a country road until I was removed from the troubling sight of human habitation, and read them with the same fascinated horror and the same profound conviction that only the grave could thereafter be sweet which Tom Hardy records himself as having felt when he retired to a fence in Wessex, and introduced himself to the reviews of his first opus, "Under the Greenwood Tree."
And the fans--the fan letters. There was one gentleman among them who did, indeed, express ecstatic approval for me. But he was sadly uncertain in the matters of his spelling, his grammar, and his chirography, and was plainly a little sprained in the brain into the bargain. So, and though I tried hopefully and manfully, I could extract precious little comfort from the contemplation of his dithyrambe. The rest were even worse than the editors. If the latter insinuated darkly that I was an ass, a simpleton, a callow booby, a nursling who ought to be spanked roundly for smart-aleckry and sent back to the sophomore class where I plainly belonged, a low disloyal fellow without heart and soul--if the editors heaped these upon my hapless head, the letter-writers came more forthrightly to the point and pronounced me a polecat, a horse-thief, and a yellow dog, and some of them added admonitions to stay away from their part of the country on pain of a fast coat of tar and feathers.
There was one nice old gentleman in particular--a nice old gentleman from Nashville in Tennessee, with the same surname as my own--in fact, as I hear, a distant kinsman--who, informing me that I had brought disgrace upon the name, formally pronounced anathema against me on behalf of all our fellow countrymen as a traitor to Dixie--read me out of family, of country, of hope in this world and the next, and in effect called on the secular arm to take me in charge.
Obligation To Speak
What, indeed, did I, as a young man able to get his productions printed in influential quarters, owe the public? the South? America? humanity? to support the status quo in its entirety, to speak not at all or but with exceeding softness against what seemed to me to be crying evils, unforgettable stupidity, on the theory that the bad that is, is the necessary concomitant of the good that is, and that to arouse sentiment against the one is inevitably to arouse it against the other--to strike down the whole fabric and possibly to call into existence unknown greater evils? Or to speak out what seemed to be an honest and disinterested conviction of truth--but which I, admittedly, cannot establish as such by an absolute test?
And when I had come to all these questions--I was, for the time, not sure.
The experience was one of the most painful of my life. With other things, it kept me in a state of chronic indecision for several years, with the result that I got almost nothing done.
Can't Be A Traitor
The main thing the avalanche of grief and question the article brought down upon me--the main thing that avalanche did was to force me to clarify and fix firmly in view the philosophy which had before been only implicit in me.
It is this. That no man having the power of expression, and having examined his own mind as best he can, that no such man who being convinced he has something true to say, says it; that no such man can ever possibly be a traitor, no matter what prejudices he offends. On the contrary, he is simply fulfilling his proper function in the world--discharging his inescapable duty. For truth is the first value of humanity, and loyalty to truth is the highest loyalty to humanity. And loyalty to humanity is the first loyalty--a loyalty that transcends and embraces all other loyalties such as loyalty to America and the South. And whatever in this America or this South does not fit with truth and humanity is no proper object of loyalty. On the contrary, to support it becomes the very greatest disloyalty. Yes, even if it should be so--as I am perfectly convinced it isn't--that the things we commonly call American or Southern are knit together in a single unseparable fabric--that to attack the evil is necessarily to attack the good. For then the whole would be incompatible with the actual interest of the American people or the Southern people and would deserve to be destroyed.
I have no way to prove that my notion of the truth is the real truth? Or even to prove that my notion is an honest and disinterested notion? Even to prove as much to myself? Then neither has any man living in the world. Neither has any man who ever lived in the world ever had.
It may be damnably stupid and wrong? It may do harm? It may. But we arrive in truth only by a passage through untruth and half-truth--and through trial and error. The danger here is simply a part of the price we must pay for living as human beings.
Links-Date -- Links-Subj.