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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Georg Brandes (1842–1927)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by William Morton Payne (1858–1919)
 
THE MAN of letters who devotes himself chiefly or wholly to criticism is an essentially modern type. Although the critical art has been practiced in all literary periods, it has not until the present century enlisted anything like the exclusive attention of writers of the highest order of attainment, but has rather played a subordinate part beside the constructive or creative work to the performance of which such men have given their best energies.  1
  In the case of some writers, such as Voltaire and Samuel Johnson, we recognize the critical spirit that informs the bulk of their work, yet are compelled on the whole to classify them as poets, or historians, or philosophers. Even Coleridge, who wrote no inconsiderable amount of the best literary criticism in existence, is chiefly remembered as a poet; even Lessing, one of the fountain-heads of authoritative critical doctrine, owes to his plays the major part of his great reputation. As for such men as Ben Jonson and Dryden, Lamb and Shelley, Goethe and Heine, their critical utterances, precious and profound as they frequently are, figure but incidentally among their writings, and we read these men mainly for other reasons than that of learning their opinions about other people’s productions. For examples of the man of letters considered primarily as critic, we must then look to our own century, and we find the type best illustrated by such men as Sainte-Beuve, Taine, Brunetière, and the subject of the present sketch.  2
  It is indeed a rather remarkable fact that the most conspicuous figure in literary Denmark at the present time should be not a poet or a novelist, but a critic pure and simple; for that is the title which must be given to Georg Brandes. Not only is his attitude consistently critical throughout the long series of his writings, but his form and matter are also avowedly critical; so much so that hardly one of his score or more of published volumes calls for classification in any other than the critical category. Even when he takes us with him upon his travels to France or Russia with the best intentions in the world as to the avoidance of “shop,” he finds himself in the end talking about the literature and the politics of those countries. One of his latest books, ‘Udenlandske Egne og Personligheder’ (Foreign Parts and Personalities) has a preface with the following opening paragraph:—
          “One gets tired of talking about books all the time. Even the man whose business it is to express himself in black and white has eyes like other people, and with them he perceives and observes the variegated visible world: its landscapes, cities, plain and cultivated men, plastic art. For him too does Nature exist; he too is moved at sight of such simple happenings as the fall of the leaves in October; he too is stirred as he gazes upon a waterfall, a mountain region, a sunlit glacier, a Dutch lake, and an Italian olive grove. He too has been in Arcadia.”
Yet half the contents of the volume thus introduced must be described as the work of the critic. Not only are the set papers upon such men as Taine, Renan, and Maupassant deliberate critical studies, but the sketches of travel likewise are sure to get around to the art and literature of the countries visited.
  3
  The life of criticism, in the larger sense, comes from wide observation and a cultivation of the cosmopolitan spirit. And it must be said of Brandes that he is a critic in this large sense, that he has taken for his province the modern spirit in all its varied manifestations. The very title of his chief work—‘Main Currents in the Literature of the Nineteenth Century’—shows him to be concerned with the broad movements of thought rather than with matters of narrow technique or the literary activity of any one country—least of all his own. It was peculiarly fortunate for Denmark that a critic of this type should have arisen within her borders a quarter-century ago. The Scandinavian countries lie so far apart from the chief centers of European thought that they are always in danger of lapsing into a narrow self-sufficiency so far as intellectual ideals are concerned. Danish literature has been made what it is chiefly by the mediation of a few powerful minds who have kept it in touch with modern progress: by Holberg, who may almost be said to have brought humanism into Denmark; by Oehlenschläger, who made the romantic movement as powerful an influence in Denmark as it was in Germany; by Brandes, who, beginning his career just after the war in which Denmark lost her provinces and became as embittered toward Germany as France was to become a few years later, strove to prevent the political breach from extending into the intellectual sphere, and helped his fellow-countrymen to understand that thought and progress are one and have a common aim, although nations may be many and antagonistic. There is much significance in the fact that the name of ‘Emigrant Literature’ is given to the first section of his greatest work. He thus styles the French literature of a century ago,—the work of such writers as Chateaubriand, Senancour, Constant, and Madame de Staël,—because it received a vivifying impulse from the emigration,—from the contact, forced or voluntary, of the French mind with the ideals of German and English civilization. It has been the chief function of Brandes, during the whole of his brilliant career, to supply points of contact between the intellectual life of Denmark and that of the rest of Europe, to bring his own country into the federal republic of letters.  4
  A glance at the course of his life, and at the subjects of his books, will serve to outline the nature of the work to which his energies have been devoted. A Jew by race, Georg Morris Cohen Brandes was born February 4th, 1842. He went through his academic training with brilliant success, studied law for a brief period, and then drifted into journalism and literature. A long visit to Paris (1866–7) gave him breadth of view and the materials for his first books, ‘Æsthetiske Studier’ (Æsthetic Studies), ‘Den Franske Æsthetik’ (French Æsthetics), and a volume of ‘Kritiker og Portraiter’ (Criticisms and Portraits).  5
  A later visit to foreign parts (1870–1) brought him into contact with Taine, Renan, and Mill, all of whom influenced him profoundly. In 1871 he began to lecture on literary subjects, chiefly in Copenhagen, and out of these lectures grew his ‘Hovedströmninger i det Nittende Aarhundredes Litteratur’ (Main Currents in the Literature of the Nineteenth Century), a work that in the course of about ten years extended to six volumes, and must be considered not only the author’s capital critical achievement, but also one of the greatest works of literary history and criticism that the nineteenth century has produced. The division of the subject is as follows:—1. ‘Emigrant Literature’; 2. ‘The Romantic School in Germany’; 3. ‘The Reaction in France’; 4. ‘Naturalism in England’; 5. ‘The Romantic School in France’; 6. ‘Young Germany.’  6
  In spite of the growing fame that came to him from these masterly studies, Brandes felt the need of a larger audience than the Scandinavian countries could offer him, and in 1877 changed his residence from Copenhagen to Berlin, a step to which he was in part urged by the violent antagonism engendered at home by the radical and uncompromising character of many of his utterances. It was not until 1883 that he again took up residence in his own country, upon a guarantee of four thousand kroner (about $1000) annually for ten years, secured by some of his friends, the condition being that he should give courses of public lectures in Copenhagen during that period.  7
  Among the works not yet named, mention should be made of his volumes upon Holberg, Tegnér, Kierkegaard, Lassalle, Beaconsfield, Ibsen and Anatole France. These brilliant monographs are remarkable for their insight into the diverse types of character with which they deal, for their breadth of view, felicity of phrase, and originality of treatment. There are also several collections of miscellaneous essays, with such titles as ‘Danske Digtere’ (Danish Poets), ‘Danske Personligheder’ (Danish Personalities), ‘Det Moderne Gjennembruds Mænd’ (Men of the Modern Awakening), ‘Udenlandske Egne og Personligheder’ (Foreign Parts and Personalities), and ‘Reminiscences of My Childhood and Youth,’ an autobiography whose charm is comparable with that of Goethe’s ‘Dichtung und Wahrheit.’ A later publication of Brandes is a comprehensive study of Shakespeare, a work of remarkable vigor, freshness, and sympathetic insight.  8
  The fellow-countrymen of Brandes in the United States tried for many years to persuade him to make them a visit. At last, through the efforts of the Dansk-Amerikansk Selskab, they succeeded in their aim, and he came to us for a stay of three weeks in May–June, 1914. He was received with great acclaim, especially in Chicago and Minneapolis, where there are large Scandinavian colonies. He gave a number of lectures, both for the public and for private organizations, among his subjects being Goethe, Napoleon, Nietzsche, and Shakespeare. He has the incommunicable gift of genius to give interest to any subject under discussion, to present even familiar matters from such unexpected points of view and with such exquisite turns of phrase as to make them seem fresh and new. This is the gift which makes us feel that even the most hackneyed themes, in his handling, will acquire a vital significance hitherto unrealized, that we may listen to a lecture upon Shakespeare or Napoleon, for example, with the assurance that we shall bring from it something that we did not take to it, however familiar we were with the subject.  9
  The cataclysm which has threatened to overwhelm European civilization in these latter days has found in Brandes an alert observer, deeply concerned, of course, with the danger threatening his own country, but preserving his cosmopolitan outlook, not hesitating to declare anew his love for France, but not permitting the hideous revelation of the new German spirit to dull his sense of humanity’s debt to the Germany of the past. In fact, a critical work on Goethe, similar in comprehensiveness to his study of Shakespeare, was produced by him during the first two years of the world-upheaval. His comments upon the war, marked by a painful constraint to preserve the neutrality which is the anchor of Denmark’s safety, have been collected from the periodicals for which they were written into a volume entitled ‘Verdenskrigen’ (The World-War). At the present writing, he is engaged upon a study of Voltaire, which will undoubtedly take a place beside the Shakespeare and the Goethe among the ripest products of his critical activity.  10
  As a critic, Brandes belongs distinctly to the class of those who speak with authority, and has little in common with the writers who are content to explore the recesses of their own subjectivity, and record their personal impressions of literature. Criticism is for him a matter of science, not of opinion, and he holds it subject to a definite method and body of principles. A few sentences from the second volume of his ‘Hovedströmninger’ will illustrate what he conceives that method to be:—
          “First and foremost, I endeavor everywhere to bring literature back to life. You will already have observed that while the older controversies in our literature—for example, that between Heiberg and Hauch, and even the famous controversy between Baggesen and Oehlenschläger—have been maintained in an exclusively literary domain and have become disputes about literary principles alone, the controversy aroused by my lectures, not merely by reason of the misapprehension of the opposition, but quite as much by reason of the very nature of my writing, has come to touch upon a swarm of religious, social, and moral problems…. It follows from my conception of the relation of literature to life that the history of literature I teach is not a history of literature for the drawing-room. I seize hold of actual life with all the strength I may, and show how the feelings that find their expression in literature spring up in the human heart. Now the human heart is no stagnant pool or idyllic woodland lake. It is an ocean with submarine vegetation and frightful inhabitants. The literary history and the poetry of the drawing-room see in the life of man a salon, a decorated ball-room, the men and the furnishings polished alike, in which no dark corners escape illumination. Let him who will, look at matters from this point of view; but it is no affair of mine.”
  11
  The boldness and even the ruthlessness which characterize much of the author’s work were plainly foreshadowed in this outspoken introduction; and he has grown more rather than less uncompromising during the quarter-century that has elapsed since they were spoken. Matthew Arnold would have applauded the envisagement of literature as “criticism of life,” but would have deplored the sacrifice of sweetness to gain increased intensity of light. Brandes came back from contact with the European world full of enthusiasm for the new men and the new ideas,—for Comte and Taine, for Renan and Mill and Spencer,—and wanted his recalcitrant fellow-countrymen to accept them all at once. They were naturally taken aback by so imperious a demand, and their opposition created the atmosphere of controversy in which Brandes has ever since for the most part lived—with slight effort to soften its asperities, but, it must be added, with the ever-increasing respect of those not of his own way of thinking. On the whole, his work has been healthful and stimulating; it has stirred the sluggish to a renewed mental activity, and has made its author himself one of the most conspicuous figures of what he calls “det Moderne Gjennembrud”—the Modern Awakening.  12
 
 
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