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T is often and truthfully said that the literary criticism
written by college men is generally artificial, unnatural, either heavy and dull or superficial and frothy, and so in either case valueless. It is further often contended that college men can not have the power to write criticism. A man can write well, it is said, only of what he knows and knows by experience, not indirectly. Therefore college men, whose knowledge of literature is, comparatively speaking, so limited, and is, so far as it goes, so largely gained through other men, not directly, can not be expected to write upon literary topics with power and genuineness.
But by arguing from the same proposition that a man can write well only of what he knows, a place for criticism in college writing may, we think, be established. The college man, because of the undeveloped state of his powers and the scantiness of his knowledge can not, it is true, do any great things in criticism. He can not, unaided, comprehend the literary tendencies of a whole period or form a complete estimate of an author's work. But he
can exercise the knowledge and the powers that he has upon subjects with which he is familiar, which must necessarily be not of wide reach, and he can express his opinions, which need not be without value. For if a man is ever to have good taste and critical insight they must begin to show themselves while he is in college, and if these qualities are backed by a thorough knowledge of, and an interest in his subject, there is no reason why he can not write criticism.
One fundamental trouble in college criticism is the method of the acquirement of the necessary knowledge. Men often choose their subject and then learn about it, instead of choosing it because they have learned about it and have become interested. It is not strange that criticism written under such circumstances should be mechanical and artificial. This way of choosing the subject is probably responsible, too, for the essays so frequently written on obscure subjects. Writers go with malice prepense into the out-of-the-way corners of literature and pick up subjects, in the hope, probably, of making an essay attractive because it is “something new.” Of course in cases when the subjects are prescribed, this way of choosing the subject is sometimes to a certain extent unavoidable, but it is hardly ever wholly so. It is, to be sure, easy to see why men choose their subjects so, and why also this way of writing leads to artificiality and insincerity. It is much easier and much more tempting to take an attractive sounding subject, read up a little on it in the originals, more in what other men have written on it, and then partly from original thought, partly from others' thought, construct an essay which shall be at least readable, than to take from one's own reading a subject perhaps not written on before, at least not in the particular way thought of, and then work out one's own salvation in the treatment of it. But if it is easier and more tempting it is certainly also destructive to hope of valuable writing.
In the finding fault with the learning about the subject after it has been chosen instead of before, there was not the slightest intention of speaking against further inves