Light on Our Generation

SEX EXPRESSION IN LITERATURE. By B. F. Calverton. Boni & Liveright

THE fault with most of what passes for literary criticism is that books are dealt with as things in themselves, just as oranges or hams are. They are treated as commodities to be recommended for public consumption, or vice versa. Most so-called critics seem no more interested in literature as a social phenomenon than the average salesman of a non-essential product is concerned with the social value of his wares. There are good reasons why neither the so-called critic nor his brother the salesman, is to blame.

Nevertheless, it is a simple fact that no one can go any considerable distance in the study of literature, or any of the arts, without finding that he has slipped over into economics and socialogy. V. F. Calverton is one of the critics who know this.

Many people must have wondered what has caused the present generation of writers to place a ridiculously disproportionate emphasis upon the sex motif. It is probable that very few of the writers themselves would be able to answer the question adequately. However, they may think otherwise. It is not a conscious individual purpose that has set most of them to writing as they do. They do it, first of all, because it can and is being done; afterward they may rationalize the act, seeing purpose where there was, in fact, no more than a fashion unresisted. Forty years ago, let us say, not one of them would have written as they are writing now. What has happened since then?

Mr. Calverton undertakes in the present volume to explain what has happened and to show that the change involved was economic in origin. The general direction of his argument may be suggested here for those who, perplexed and wishing to understand our time might do themselves the service of reading this illuminating book.

The nineteenth century, as Mr. Calverton points out, was the heyday of the bourgeois class. Like every other class that wins sovereignty over the masses and feels its power secure, it became extremely conservative. Bourgeois morality was one notable phase of that conservatism. But economic individualism, upon which the prosperity of that class was based, bore within itself the seeds of its own destruction. Competition in trade became so intense with the enormous growth of industrialism as to be suicidal, and more and more individual interests were obliged to combine in self defense. These combinations’ merged into still larger ones; and the process continues. Thus, what was virtually economic feudalism slowly coalesced until now a financial world empire is not altogether an idle dream. In the process, the bourgeois class that dominated the nineteenth century has practically lost control. Its theories and ideals no longer fit the apparent facts of the modern world, as Mr. Calverton undertakes to show in many ways. And just as the doctrine of economic individualism led of necessity to modern capitalism, so among the masses collectivism has developed as a powerful social weapon.

It is the merging self-conscious masses, formerly under the absolute control of the now decaying bourgeoisie, that are revolting against the whole world view of their one time masters. So Mr. Calverton sees it. By way of fortifying the position taken, he has considered the same question of popular sex treatment in other times, as far back as the Elizabethan Age.

Perhaps most people who are offended at the violence of modern movements in general would be happier and wiser if they were able to view the whole process impersonally. Mr. Calverton’s volume is well calculated to aid in achieving that wider view.