Intimate Letters of James Gibbons Huneker


Buffon’s “The style is the man himself is one of those generalizations that are only applicable to the exceptions. Some styles merely indicate certain traits of the writer, some styles are masks to hide entirely the personality— indeed, the very character of the writer.

It is a commonplace that almost all writers in their personal lives bear no resemblance to the image we conceive of them from their poems or prose. But there are rare instances—and James Gibbons Huneker was one of them—where the style is the very spit and spawn of the man. These few men literally live while they are writing. In Huneker the co-ordination between the man, his thought, his style, his speech, his very manner of drinking a seidel of Pilsner, was perfect. His face was his style. His work was his style. His conversational manner was his style. His face was ironic, forceful, Goethean. His walk—his carriage—was chip-on-the shoulder, the carriage and walk of a Challenger.

His talk was electric, epigrammatic, obscene, direct, and sometimes flavored with a subtle genial diabolism. All these traits are in the style of this our greatest critic of the arts, a man who stands absolutely alone in American letters, a man who had no predecessor and who has had no successor. There was also in Huneker at times a curious timidity, a kind of humility, a kind of shamefacedness at his own great- ness and cultural depths, which those who did not know him as well as I did might have taken for egotistical hypocrisy. But it was really part of the innate character of the man. Genius in America when it mixes with mediocrities—and Huneker was a superb mixer—is compelled to shield itself, to assume a mask, to hide itself, to take on the protective coloring of the crowd.

But when Huneker was among his own—poets, artists, social and artistic rebels, musical composers and painters of the rare and the individual—he was in full bloom. He was thus a man who literally lives in his letters and works. So much so that when I re-read his essays and letters fifteen years after his death he comes before me as if alive. In these letters and essays I hear his voice and see his gestures again. He is materialized for me as completely as if he stood before me—I carry on with him in his work those innumerable conversations which were in his lifetime non-stop talks, many times, from dusk to dawn. Vibrant, electric, spontaneous, discursive, casual, eater- cornered in life, one page of his writings evokes for me his personality. So powerfully has this phenomenon worked in me at times that I look up suddenly from his printed letters, his “Steeplejack” or from some of his essays and involuntarily salute him with an “Hello, Jim!”

I had corresponded with him from 1901 to 1908, when one morning in the latter year, at about 3 o’clock, I met him in Jack’s restaurant. I introduced myself. He rose from his chair, and, with a seidel of Pilsner in one hand and pointing the other directly at me, thundered: “Schopenhauer or Nietzsche?” The last time I was with him was shortly before his death in 1921. I met him on Park Row. Again he pointed a finger at me and boomed:

“What do you think of this — Eighteenth Amendment?” This was characteristic of Jim. On meeting you, no commonplaces, no “How are you?” or “Fine day!” It was always a sudden explosion about art, literature, philosophy or drink.

This living Huneker you will find in these “Intimate Letters”—a splendid title, for Huneker was always intimate. Nearly all of them begin with a bang! Except when writing to his editor, no “Dear Sir” stuff. They reek with colloquialisms, puns, sudden incisive judgments, slaps on the shoulder, vivid snapshots of personalities far and near, Rabelaisian mots, confessions and parenthetical remarks (he had a parenthetical mind—a mind that was pulled hither and thither by an associative apparatus in his brain that dragged up bizarre and curious bucketfuls of cultural and ideological fish from the subconscious). Huneker was the farthest removed from the stilted, the pedantic and the academic of any writer who has lived among us.

All his letters are collaborations of Huneker and the man or woman to whom he is writing. Huneker was, in fact, primarily a collaborator—like Montaigne and Remy de Gourmont, for instance. He collaborated with life, with the universe. To use the jargon of professors, he was subjective—intensely subjective. He fused his ego with the person he was writing about— Nietzsche, Flaubert, Poe, Liszt, Rembrandt, Stirner, Degas, Goya, Chopin, Huysmans, Baudelaire. No matter what or whom he was writing about he was writing about Huneker. He saw all genius as one of the facets of himself. For this reason all his work is creative, vital, dynamic. He put the full power of an unshackled individualism into every line he wrote. Not that he couldn’t be objective. His objectivity was founded on an innate organ of taste second to no man writing in this century. He knew the genuine from the quack, an original from a faker, a genius from a poseur instantaneously.

In conversation he sometimes summed up, and shattered, a celebrity in a single word. I recall “How pretty!” in regard to the work of a famous painter, “gargle!” in regard to the work of a poet who was the vogue, “for ladies only” about a novelist touted by the reviewers as a “Second Balzac,” “frozen gonads” about a “philosopher.” These fascinating letters—each one of which is a pungent slice of Huneker himself and collectively are a mosaic of a Huneker who always contradicted a Huneker, but who was consistent with his Daimon—these letters begin in 1900 and end in 1921. These twenty-one years span Huneker’s most productive years, the years that saw his rise to fame, the years from Chopin (1900) to “Variations” (1921).

And what a parade of genius Huneker led across the arid minds of America lined with literary bumwad in those twenty-one years!—Chopin, Brahms, Richard Strauss, Wagner, Balzac, Flaubert, Nietzsche, George Moore, Gorky, Duse, Strindberg, Ibsen, Bernard Shaw, D’Annunzio, Maeterlinck, Stendhal, Cezanne, Carriére, Daumier, El Greco, Lafcadio Hearn, Joseph Conrad, Wedekind—but the list is interminable. For it was Huneker who introduced Europe to America and did more than any man in America to smash the strangle-hold of the Puritan garrotters on our literature. Huneker did not clear the air in America of professorial nunkey-donkeyism and Puritanical hypocrisy and smugness by direct attacks. He attacked the spawn of “Godey’s Lady’s Book,” whose violent blushes in the presence of sex and revolutionary artistic ideas extended even unto Howells and Twain, from behind—the proper place to attack Moralic Smugness in the arts as well as in actual life.

He broke down our provincialism by erosion—the erosion of European culture, which he heaped on America in season and out, or, as Huneker once said, “Yankees win or Yankees lose, I announce Chopin, Flaubert, Stendhal and Company!” Just before he died the stench of what Remy de Gourmont calls “factory-smoke literature” began to assail his delicate intellectual nostrils. It was coeval (and co-evil) with Prohibition and Russian Communism.

Huneker, although the most catholic of critics in his tastes, insisted that no matter what you wrote about it had to be literature, it had to have quality. The “school,” the “movement” you belonged to in music, painting or writing wasn’t of the slightest importance to Huneker. “Do you know your business; are you doing a good job?” was all he asked. He was himself an aristocrat, and, like all real aristo- crats, thoroughly democratic. In one day he could write an essay on Nietzsche, hold a conversation with a cop or a bartender in the latter’s own lingo, empty a seidel of beer over de Pachmann’s head (which he actually did in Lüchow’s), struggle with the intricacies of the Second Ballade of Chopin on his piano, and then write a two- column article for a newspaper on Arkansas cyclones (which he also actually did for the World).

Wherever Huneker went he was immediately surrounded by all kinds of persons. His glowing, incandescent personality drew around him all the moths of theatre and opera lobbies, bars and cafes. He knew the Fifth Avenue traffic cops and many of the bartenders in New York by name. He knew all the great beer-routes in Europe, just as he knew the history and the work of every artist, writer and musician who had ever got on paper or canvas.

Men like Herbert Spencer and John Stuart Mill made him sick at the stomach. He had no use for strong spirits. Bacchus and Gambrinus were his gods. He had a great admiration for the Jews—he loved them.

He deplored the fact that he had not a “drop of that precious Semitic blood in my veins.” He was, in politics, a furious enemy of regimentation of any kind. “Let them go,” he said to me one day in 1920 in speaking about Lenin and Trotsky; “they’ll pave the way for Individual Anarchy!” Upon the original publication of these “Intimate Letters” in 1924, although no reviews of the volume were printed, personal criticism was made against the various individuals concerned with the editing and publishing of this work. Such criticism was based upon complete misunderstanding of the purpose of the book, together with a lack of knowledge of the personality of the author. And the friends of James Huneker owe a debt to T. R. Smith for his efforts in bringing forth this volume and re- printing it in a day of cafeteria culture and “factory smoke literature.” It might be said of these letters of Huneker’s what Walt Whitman said of Leaves of Grass, “Whoso touches this book touches a Man.”

August, 1936.

Benjamin DeCasseres.