Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature: An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891. Vols. VIVIII: Literature of the Republic, Part III., 18351860
The Great French Critic
By George Ripley (18021880)
[Born in Greenfield, Mass., 1802. Died in New York, N. Y., 1880. The New-York Tribune. 1869.]
SAINTE-BEUVE obtained his reputation as the critical historian of the literary activity of France during a considerable portion of the last half-century. Born in 1804, his early manhood was devoted to professional studies, with no thought of making literature the occupation of his life. It was not long, however, before his sensitive taste grew weary of the repulsive details of anatomy, and other studies preparatory to the practice of medicine, and the prospect of spending his days in the chamber of diseasethe witness of human infirmities which he had no power to alleviatepresented no charm to his youthful imagination. His decision was soon made, and he abandoned the study of medicine for the pursuit of literature. The first-fruits of his new career were one or two romances, and a few poems, which, though marked by a certain subtlety of mental analysis, gave few indications of inventive power, and have been entirely eclipsed by the splendor of his subsequent productions. With the exception of his elaborate historical work on the recluses of Port Royal, his pen was henceforth devoted to critical studies, which have introduced a new method into that branch of literature, and now remain a permanent monument of the rare versatility and acuteness of his mind. Within the period of his activity, few works have appeared in the province of belles-lettres on which he has not recorded his mature judgments. He was equally at home in poetry, fiction, history, biography, in all the productions of imagination and tasteexcluding only the fruits of abstract speculation and of physical research, which opened too wide a field for the labors of a single intellect, however comprehensive,although his favorite themes related to the portraiture of character as exhibited in the creations of genius.
The critical faculty of Sainte-Beuve consisted in the sagacious application of what may be called the psychological method to the judgment of literary productions. The estimate of a book with him was not only the exercise of high artistic skill, but the result of a keen mental analysis. It was an intellectual labor, no less profound, no less conscientious, of a no less responsible character, than the solution of a scientific problem or the composition of a history, although it was one into which he threw his heart so completely that it betrayed no odor of midnight oil, but had all the freedom and airy grace of spontaneity. He regarded a book not as a collection of verbal wonders, an exhibition of rhetorical artifices, or a display of personal ambition, but as the precious life-blood of a master-spirit, suited to be the nutriment and medicine of coming ages; and those which did not in some degree approach to this standard had no power to touch his imagination, and were passed by with as little interest as though they had been unwritten leaves of parchment or papyrus. The human aspect of a book, so to speak, was of more importance to him than its literary relations. It was the exponent of the authors soul, rather than a cunning composition of prose and verse. Hence, although a consummate judge of literary art, his criticisms of a work dwelt less on the external form and expression than on the inward spirit and creative idea which presided at its birth. The actual accomplishments of a writer, in his view, were of not so much moment as the intellectual motive which gave the impulse to his endeavors. No man, certainly, ever excelled Sainte-Beuve in the happy faculty of reproducing the contents of a work of genius, of expressing the essence of a large volume in a brief essay, and of reporting the exact measurement of its intellectual proportions; but he was not content with this; he ascended from the stream to the fountain; detected the spirit of the author in the coloring of his work; analyzed his genius from its development in words; and from the foot of Hercules drew a portrait of the person. Perhaps it is not too much to say that his criticisms often did more justice to a writer than the writer did to himself. He understood not only what was said, but what was intended. Beneath an imperfect expression, he would detect a profound or subtle thought. He entered so fully into the mind of an author that he would present in striking perspective and impressive illustration the conception or fancy which was left obscure in the original, and needed the warmth of sympathy for its complete exposition.
For, above all, Sainte-Beuve was a sympathetic critic. He was wont to speak of the writers that came under his notice as his patients or clients, never as his victims. He knew too well the secrets of literary composition not to be alive to its difficulties, and not to cherish a certain tenderness for those who had attempted it unsuccessfully. The line which separates excellence from mediocrity is of so shadowy a character that he had no passion for placing the elect on one side and the condemned on the other. He had no belief in purgatory, but also no desire to define the limits between heaven and hell. The man who writes a poor book, in his opinion, was not necessarily either an idiot or a knave, and one to be driven out at the point of the bayonet. Nothing but vanity, pretension, affectation, or insincerity, was to him the meet subject of literary castigation; the punishment of worthlessness was neglect; he had a wide liking for every variety of mental accomplishments; he opened hospitably his doors to authors of manifold degrees of merit; he treated them all, if not with smiling welcome, with courteous kindliness; though he was not afraid to smite, and when he struck, he struck sore. Still, he loved rather to dwell on the positive side of every production of literary art. He had no taste for scanning the defects of a work and displaying his own acumen and ingenuity at the expense of the author. With the school of Jeffrey, and Sydney Smith, and the critics of Blackwoods Magazine, which delights to expatiate on the shortcomings which it discovers, and to treat the writer from whom it differs in taste or opinion with contempt rather than with discrimination, he had no affinity. Nor was his tolerance the result of a blind and effeminate charity. It was not because he feared to offend that he brought an indulgent generosity to the judgment of authors. Rather it grew out of the catholic extent of his appreciation, the largeness of his nature, which took in every variety of manifestation, and the vitality of his tastes, which were alive to every expression of humanity. His work was less the work of dissection than of reconstruction. He was one of the few critics who dwelt with more emphasis on the positive qualities of a book than on its negations and imperfections, and passed judgment on an author according to what he had done rather than to what he had left undone. It was no part of the critical function, in his view, to give the last quietus to the helpless abortions of literature, but rather to discover and cherish the symptoms of healthy life.
After all, he regarded the productions of literature as illustrations of humanity rather than creations of art. Hence his peculiar interest in works of a biographical character, for it was these that gave him occasion to pass from the rules of literary composition to sketches of experience and the analysis of passion, reproducing the personages of history in the living colors of reality. He delighted most in books which brought him into contact with persons, which pivoted on the lights and shades of character, and afforded him materials for his masterly delineations of special individualities, and his dramatic grouping of events in the panoramic displays of society. The detection of the human element in a work of literature always touched his imagination and inspired his pen with fresh power. Hence his graphic sketches and illustrations of character, in many respects, form the most significant commentary on the history of his age.