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Maxim Gorki   By: (1873-1940)

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Translated by Frances A. Welby

[Frontispiece: MAXIM GORKI]

William Heinemann 1905


It cannot be denied that the academic expression "Literature" is an ill favoured word. It involuntarily calls up the Antithesis of Life, of Personal Experience, of the Simple Expression of Thought and Feeling. With what scorn does Verlaine exclaim in his Poems:

"And the Rest is only Literature."

The word is not employed here in Verlaine's sense. The Impersonal is to be excluded from this Collection. Notwithstanding its solid basis, the modern mode of the Essay gives full play of personal freedom in the handling of its matter.

In writing an entire History of Literature, one is unable to take equal interest in all its details. Much is included because it belongs there, but has to be described and criticised of necessity, not desire. While the Author concentrates himself con amore upon the parts which, in accordance with his temperament, attract his sympathies, or rivet his attention by their characteristic types, he accepts the rest as unavoidable stuffing, in order to escape the reproach of ignorance or defect. In the Essay there is no padding. Nothing is put in from external considerations. The Author here admits no temporising with his subject.

However foreign the theme may be to him, there is always some point of contact between himself and the strange Personality. There is certain to be some crevice through which he can insinuate himself into this alien nature, after the fashion of the cunning actor with his part. He tries to feel its feelings, to think its thoughts, to divine its instincts, to discover its impulses and its will then retreats from it once more, and sets down what he has gathered.

Or he steeps himself intimately in the subject, till he feels that the Alien Personality is beginning to live in him. It may be months before this happens; but it comes at last. Another Being fills him; for the time his soul is captive to it, and when he begins to express himself in words, he is freed, as it were, from an evil dream, the while he is fulfilling a cherished duty.

It is a welcome task to one who feels himself congenial to some Great or Significant Man, to give expression to his cordial feelings and his inspiration. It becomes an obsession with him to communicate to others what he sees in his Idol, his Divinity. Yet it is not Inspiration for his Subject alone that makes the Essayist. Some point that has no marked attraction in itself may be inexpressibly precious to the Author as Material, presenting itself to him with some rare stamps or unexpected feature, that affords a special vehicle for the expression of his temperament. Every man favours what he can describe or set forth better than his neighbours; each seeks the Stuff that calls out his capacities, and gives him opportunity to show what he is capable of. Whether the Personality portrayed be at his Antipodes, whether or no he have one single Idea in common with him, matters nothing. The picture may in sooth be most successful when the Original is entirely remote from the delineator, in virtue of contrary temperament, or totally different mentality, just because the traits of such a nature stand out the more sharply to the eye of the tranquil observer.

Since Montaigne wrote the first Essays, this Form has permeated every country. In France, Sainte Beuve, in North America, Emerson, has founded his School. In Germany, Hillebranat follows the lead of Sainte Beuve, while Hermann Grimm is a disciple of Emerson. The Essayists of To day are Legion.

It is hard to say whether what is set out in this brief and agreeable mode will offer much resistance to the ravages of Time. In any case its permanence is not excluded. It is conceivable that men, when condemned to many months' imprisonment, might arm themselves with the Works of Sainte Beuve for their profitable entertainment, rather than with the Writings of any other Frenchman, since they give the Quintessence of many Books and many Temperaments... Continue reading book >>

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