Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
Huneker, James Gibbons (1857–1921)
Author:
Barcus, Jr., James E.
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

Born in Philadelphia, the son of a printer and collector of prints, the younger Huneker was also encouraged in the arts by his Roman Catholic mother, an omnivorous reader. James left school in 1872, at the age of fifteen, taking with him a lifelong dislike for institutions and scholarship. He studied painting, worked in a foundry, and studied for the law, but finally returned to the piano, which he had studied as a child. Staking his future on music, he left for Paris, hoping to meet Franz Liszt and to enter the Conservatoire. A weak performance gained him admission only as an auditor, but he studied privately with George Mathias, a student of Frédéric Chopin. Following a year in Europe, during which he discovered the French impressionists, German philosophers, and Russian novelists, he returned to Philadelphia, where he continued music studies and wrote occasionally for newspapers and magazines. In 1886, at the age of thirty, he moved to New York and quickly became a respected daily columnist and popular critic and writer. By 1900, Huneker was one of the nation's most read and respected critics. By his death in 1921, he had published twenty books of criticism, fiction, and autobiography. In the words of H.L. Mencken, "no other critic of his generation had a tenth of his influence. Almost single-handed he overthrew the aesthetic theory that had flourished in the United States since the death of Poe" (qtd. in Bachinger 36).

Huneker's connection with Whitman began in 1878 when, impressed by Leaves of Grass, the young man called on Whitman in Camden. The future critic occasionally met Whitman outside Philadelphia's Academy of Music after a concert and escorted him to the Camden ferry streetcar. In 1887, Huneker publicly praised Whitman's frankness, and on 31 May 1891 he listed Whitman among the great personalities then living in America. On 1 November 1891, in a long, complimentary article in the Recorder, Huneker condemned America's neglect of Whitman, concluding that Whitman was "one of the greatest natural forces in American literature" (qtd. in Schwab, "Criticism" 66). By 13 July 1898, however, Huneker had developed some reservations. Although he continued to praise some poems as "the finest things America has given to the nations," he now also saw "slush, trash, nonsense, obscurity, morbid eroticism, vulgarity and preposterous mouthing" (qtd. in Schwab, "Criticism" 67). Huneker may, in fact, have been the first American critic to refer openly to Whitman's homosexual leaning. In this respect, he helped to focus attention on an aspect of Whitman which later critics have not been able to ignore.

Bibliography

Bachinger, Katherine. "Years of Ferment: American Literary Criticism Enters the Twentieth Century." American Studies International 20.4 (1982): 31–45.

Schwab, Arnold T. James Gibbons Huneker: Critic of the Seven Arts. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford UP, 1963.

———. "James Huneker on Whitman: A Newly Discovered Essay." American Literature 38 (1966): 208–218.

———. "James Huneker's Criticism of American Literature." American Literature 29 (1957): 64–78.


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