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No, I cannot accept your kind invitation. I simply never give lectures or talks of the kind you suggest. I used to, very occasionally, but since my mother3 has been an invalid I have had no time for these things.
I have not written you before because I have wanted to write you a long letter about
your book4, and Heaven only knows when I will have
time to do so. I am just finishing a new book5 of my
own and will soon go to my mother in California6. I read your book very carefully and with great
interest. I am awfully glad you wrote it,
and I agree with you in the main - in your opinions on the history of criticism and
the critical mind, but I do feel that you take a little group of American critics7, I might say of New
York critics, too seriously. This of course is entirely confidential, but I think
the men you mention,
Mr. Canby8 andRandolph Bourne9
and, in a less degree, Canby, were the only
ones who had that instantaneous perception and absolute conviction about quality
which a good critic must have. You
understand me; it is a thing like an ear for music. You can tell when a singer
flats, or you cannot tell. You cannot
be taught to distinguish that error.
Take, for example, an intelligent and serious man10 like Stuart Sherman11. (And please don't think there is anything personal in this - he always treated me very generously indeed.12) I knew him quite well. He was absolutely lacking in the quality I speak of. He could take a writer as a subject; talk about him and read about him and worry his brain over the matter, and say a great many ⬩W⬩S⬩C⬩ interesting things about this writer - many of them true. But it was all from the outside. It was a thing worked up, studied out.
What I mean is this:
suppose that Sherman had read all the
novels of Joseph Conrad13 except the "Nigger of the Narcisus"14, if
that he had written about them and read
what other critics had to say about them until he knew a great deal about these
books and their quality. If all this were true, and I had taken a dozen pages from
the "Nigger of the Narcisus" and mixed them up with a dozen other pages written by Conrad's
fairly intelligent imitators (people like Francis Brett
Young15 for example), it would have been utterly impossible for Stuart
Sherman to pick out the Conrad pages from the second rate stuff.
A fine critic must have something more than a studious nature and high ideals, and
the very best criticism
s I happen to
was not written by professional critics at
all. Henry James16 was a very fine critic I
think; and so was Walter Pater17. And so was
M eérim eée.18
I don't mean that all fine artists in prose have been good critics. Of course Turgenev19 was a very poor critic.
But on the whole, composers are the best
judges of new musical compositions and writers are the best judges of new kinds of
writing. I mean
that they are better
judges than either musical scholars or literary scholars. But this is only a little
of a great deal that I would like to say to you about your book, which does exactly
what a book of that sort ought to do - makes me want to come back at you and have
out with you, both where I agree and where I disagree.
P.S. This letter was written some days ago—but my secretary22 begged me not to send it. "Just the sort of indiscreet letter that falls into the wrong hands and makes you a lot of enemies for nothing," says she. However, as she has gone to Cuba23 for her vacation, I think I'll send it anyhow. I feel that it won't fall into the wrong hands, and that you won't quote me—even to your publisher24, who is rather a chatter-box.Yours, Willa Cather