Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Reimaging Huneker; Introduction to a different side of the great Critic

The personality of James Gibbons Huneker (1857-1921) was an engaging maze of contradictions. “This man Huneker,” wrote long time friend Benjamin DeCasseres, “was a voracious shark of the intellectual and of the sensuous life. He was curious about all things, a sleuth of all sensations and thoughts. To him Experience was Truth. Everything gave him a nervo-vascular thrill—stars and beer; a woman’s back or a new theory of the functions of the pylorus; music or pig’s feet; Flaubert or Coney Island carousels; Bergson or Chianti; a policeman or the Aquarium. He was Pantheistic gusto and ecstasy.”

Writing made him an influential force on the emerging New York City musical scene. His memorial ceremony on Sunday, February 13, 1921 was attended by more than 1,200 people who packed Town Hall on 43rd street in Manhattan. Huneker was fondly remembered not as virtuoso conductor, musician, or composer, but as journalist and critical writer!

To his credit stand eighteen substantial books with subjects primarily focused on music criticism but also including criticism of drama, painting, literature, and even a book on prewar urbanism. One absorbs his lightening energy and wit even in glancing selected titles: "The Pathos of Distance; A Book of a Thousand and One Moments," "Overtones in Music and Literature," "Egoists; A Book of Supermen," "Iconoclasts; A Book of Dramatists," "New Cosmopolis; A Book of Images," "Unicorns," "Bedouins," and "Ivory, Apes and Peacocks."

It would seem that a writer having the popularity and impact normally bestowed upon musical royalty would be assured a continued influence. Mysteriously, Huneker’s influence vanished quickly with his presence, and with the exception of his early book on Chopin and his prefaces to the Joseffy edition of Chopin’s piano works published by Schirmer, it uncommon to come across his name.

Huneker experimented as a writer of fiction abut musical subjects. This layer in the maze of contradiction—-one of creation rather than analysis—-was never properly rewarded, and too rarely materialized for Huneker in that age of anxiety and deadlines.

His two early volumes exclusively devoted to musical fiction: Melomaniacs (1902), and Visionaries (1905), certainly couldn’t have inspired confidence in his reception as an author of fiction. Yet, a strong sense of fiction and story-telling permeate and flavor all of his writings, and occasionally sour the taste of his criticism. “ ‘Why don’t you write more fiction, Jim?’ [DeCasseres] asked Huneker [...] ‘Why, I’ve never written anything else,’ he replied.” After the two volumes mentioned above, Huneker almost completely avoided fiction until his final work—-a masterpiece of erotic and decadent fiction called "Painted Veils."

“But my favorite books, because they were despised and rejected," wrote Huneker, "are my Melomaniacs and Visionaries. Mr. H. L. Mencken, brilliant and individual critic, to whom I owe more than a lakh of metaphorical rupees for his interest in my work, wrote that I hadn’t much talent for fiction. And it was the one thing of which I had hoped he would say the reverse; not that I think I have, but when you possess a weakness it is always nice to be coddled.”

An attempt to flip this last contradiction—-that Huneker’s weakness was not in fiction but that the weakness was in itself a fiction—- is based on the premise that the sprawling 350 page volume Melomaniacs disguised and diffused power and success in its organization, story selection and sequence.

Arnold T. Schwab reported that in a letter written in November 1899 to Richard Aldrich, Huneker claimed that “he had written Chopin for Scribner’s on condition that they publish his short stories.” (Schwab p.124) This reluctance on the part of his primary publisher to print his fiction in collected form perhaps motivated his desire to include as much as possible, and he packed both Melomaniacs and Visionaries to the absolute brim with maximized content.

Over the course of several entries in the SonicLabyrinth I hope to show that there are stories in these early collections that are engaging and very worth a read.

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