Saturday, May 17, 2008
The Forerunner (1:1): "Comment And Review" (Non-fiction, Charlotte Perkins Gilman)
Why does anybody criticize anything? And why does THE FORERUNNER
criticize--the things herein treated?
On examination, we find several sources of criticism. The earliest and
commonest is the mere expression of personal opinion, as is heard where
young persons are becoming acquainted, the voluble "I like this!" and
"Don't you like that?" and "Isn't such a thing horrid?" For hours do
the impressionable young exchange their ardent sentiments; and the same
may be heard from older persons in everyday discussion.
This form of criticism has its value. It serves to show, even
relentlessly to expose, the qualities and deficiencies of the critic.
What one "likes" merely shows what one is like.
The vitality dies out of it, however, when one learns two things; first,
that likings change with growth of character and new experience, and,
second, that few people are interested in an inventory of limitations.
Following this comes another painfully common source of criticism--the
desire to exhibit superiority. The aged are prone to this fault in
discussion of the young and their achievements. The elect in general
show it, seeking to prove to common people that these are not as they
are; the conservative rests his objection to anything new and different
on the same broad base; and the critic, the real, professional critic,
can hardly trust himself to approve warmly of anything, lest it weaken
his reputation. If he does, it must be something which is caviar to the
Then comes that amiable desire to instruct and assist, born of parental
instinct, fostered by pedagogy, intrusted by St. Paul to the "husband at
home." Moved by this feeling, we point out the errors of our friends
and mark examination papers; and thus does the teacher of painting move
among his pupils and leave them in ranks of glimmering hope or dark
Another fruitful source of criticism is a natural wish to free one's
mind; as the hapless public sputters on the street, or in letters to the
papers, protesting against the stupidity and cruelty of its many
aggressors. Under this impulse bursts forth the chattering flood of
discussion after play or lecture, merely to relieve the pressure.
Then comes a very evil cause--the desire to give pain, to injure.
Certain persons, and publications, use their critical ability with great
effect to this end. In England it seems to be a sort of game, great
literary personages rush out into the open and belabor each other
mercilessly; while the public rejoices as at a prize-fight. We
sometimes see a newspaper offering its readers a form of entertainment
which is not even a fight, nor yet a prompt and needed execution, but a
sort of torture-chamber exhibition, where the dumb victim is vilified
and ridiculed, grilled and "roasted," to make an American holiday.
There is one more cause of criticism--the need of money. Some people
are hired to criticize others, the nature of their attentions wholly
dictated by the employer. A shadowy bridge is opened here, connecting
criticism with advertisement. Many cross it.
For any criticism to have value it must rest clearly and honestly upon a
definite point of view.
"The Toad beneath the harrow knows
Exactly where each tooth point goes.
The Butterfly upon the road
Preaches contentment to that Toad."
If one elects, for instance, to criticize an illustration in
particular--or a particular illustration--or the present status of
popular illustration in general--the position of the critic must be
frankly chosen and firmly held. If it is that of the technician, either
the original artist or the reproducer or even the publisher, then a
given picture in a magazine may be discussed merely as a picture, as a
half-tone, or as a page effect, intelligently and competently. If the
purely aesthetic viewpoint is chosen, all the above considerations may
be waived and the given picture judged as frankly ugly, or as beautiful,
quite apart from its technique. If, again, the base of judgment is that
of the reader, in whose eyes an illustration should illustrate--i.e.,
give light, make clear the meaning of the text--then we look at a given
picture to see if it carries out the ideas expressed in the tale or
article, and value it by that.
On this base also stands the author, only one person, to be sure, as
compared with the multitude of readers, but not a dog, for all that.
The author, foaming at the mouth, remote and helpless, here makes common
ground with the reader and expects an illustration to illustrate.
Perhaps, we should say, "the intelligent reader"--leaving out such as
the young lady in the tale, who said they might read her anything, "if
it was illustrated by Christie."*
[*--This does not by any means deny intelligence to all appreciators of
Mr. Christie's work, but merely to such as select literature for the
THE FORERUNNER believes that it may voice the feelings of many writers
and more readers; almost all readers, in fact, if it here and now
records a protest against an all too frequent illustrative sin: where
the gentleman, or lady, who is engaged and paid to illustrate a story,
prefers to insert pictures of varying attractiveness which bear no
relation to the text. This is not illustration. It is not even honest
business. It does not deliver the goods paid for. It takes advantage
of author, publisher and public, and foists upon them all an art
exhibition which was not ordered.
To select a recent popular, easily obtainable, instance of vice and
virtue in illustration, let us take up the "American Magazine" for
August. Excellent work among the advertisements--there the artist is
compelled to "follow copy"; his employer will take no nonsense. That's
one reason why people like to look at them--the pictures are
intelligible. Admirable pictures by Worth Brehm to Stewart White's
story--perfect. You see the people, Mr. White's people, see them on the
page as you saw them in your mind, and better. Good drawing, and
_personal character_--those special people and not others. The insight
and appreciation shown in the frontispiece alone makes as fine an
instance of what illustration ought to be as need be given.
Those light sketches to the airy G. G. Letters are good, too--anything
more definite would not belong to that couple.
But Mr. Cyrus Cuneo shows small grasp of what Mr. Locke was writing
about in his "Moonlight Effect." The tailpiece, by somebody else, is
the best picture of the lot.
Mr. Leone Brackner does better in Jack London's story, though falling
far short of the extreme loathsomeness Mr. London heaps so thickly. J.
Scott Williams follows "Margherita's Soul" with a running accompaniment
and variations, in pleasant accord with the spirit of that compelling
tale. He gives more than the scene represented, gives it differently,
and yet gives it.
Mr. McCutcheon and George Fitch are also harmonious in clever fooling of
pen and pencil, and Thomas Fogarty, though by no means convincing, goes
well enough with Mr. O'Higgins' story, which is not convincing, either.
The hat and dress pictures are photographs, and do artificial justice to
their artificial subjects in Mrs. Woodrow's arraignment of the Fantastic
But--. Go to your library after, or send your ten cents for, or look up
on your own shelves, that August number, and turn to Lincoln Colcord's
story of "Anjer," to see what an illustrator dare do. Here's a story,
the merits of which need not be discussed, but in which great stress is
laid on a certain Malay Princess, the free nobility of whose savage love
healed the sick heart of an exhausted man. "I saw how beautiful she
was," says the narrator: "her breast was bare in a long slit, and
shadowed like the face of the pool." "The most glorious native woman of
the East I've ever seen." "She walked like a tiger, with a crouching
step of absolute grace." "Her eyes called as if they'd spoken words of
love: the beauty of her face was beyond speech--almost beyond thought."
Thus Mr. Colcord.
And how Mr. Townshend? It is on Page 334, Mr. Townshend's
"illustration." ("Whit way do we ca' it the Zoo?" "If it wasna' ca'd
the Zoo, what would we ca' it?") A bit of railing and a pillar is the
only concession to the scene described; that and the fact that there is
a man and a woman there. One more detail is granted--a forehead
ornament, as alleged. For the rest?
Since the picture is so unjust to the words of the author, can the words
of the critic do any justice to the picture? The man will do, as well
one man as another, apparently. The big blob of an object that seems to
have been suggested by a Gargantuan ginger jar, and to be put in for
tropical effect, as also a set of wooden bananas, may be forgiven.
But the Princess--the tigress--the free, graceful, passionate woman--the
beauty beyond speech. Look at it.
A crooked, crouching, awkward negroid type, a dress of absurd volume and
impossible outlines, the upper part a swathed bath towel, one stiff,
ugly arm hung helpless, one lifted and ending in a _hoof,_ a plain pig's
hoof; the head bent, chin sunk on chest like a hunchback's; and the
face--! One could forgive the gross, unusual ugliness; but why no hint
of interest in her lover? Why this expression as of a third generation
London pauper in a hospital? What explanation is there of this meagre,
morbid, deformed female in the midst of that story?
Frank incapacity on the part of an artist is possible. To try and try
and try again and utterly fail is possible. To write to the author and
say, "I cannot visualize your character, or express it, and must decline
to undertake the order," or to the editor and refuse the job, is
possible. But to take the order, to read the story (if he did read it),
to send in and accept pay for a picture like that--"Whit way would ye
Originally published in Forerunner: 1:1 (November 1909).
Etext from Project Gutenberg.
This public domain text has been presented as found (with some minor format changes); this website and its owners are not responsible for errors, substantive and/or minor.