James Huneker

by H.L. Mencken

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Chapter 3

Huneker comes out of Philadelphia, that depressing intellectual slum, and his first writing was for the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin. He is purely Irish in blood, and is of very respectable ancestry, his maternal grandfather and godfather having been James Gibbons, the Irish poet and patriot, and president of the Fenian Brotherhood in America. Once, in a review of "The Pathos of Distance," I ventured the guess that there was a German strain in him somewhere, and based it upon the beery melancholy visible in parts of that book. Who but a German sheds tears over the empty bottles of day before yesterday, the Adelaide Neilson of 1877? Who but a German goes into woollen undershirts at 45, and makes his will, and begins to call his wife "Mamma"? The green-sickness of youth is endemic from pole to pole, as much so as measles; but what race save the wicked one is floored by a blue distemper in middle age, with sentimental burblings a cappella, hallucinations of lost loves, and an unquenchable lacrymorrhea?... I made out a good case, but I was wrong, and the penalty came swiftly and doubly, for on the one hand the Boston Transcript sounded an alarm against both Huneker and me as German spies, and on the other hand Huneker himself proclaimed that, even spiritually, he was less German than Magyar, less "Hun" than Hun. "I am," he said, "a Celto-Magyar: Pilsner at Donneybrook Fair. Even the German beer and cuisine are not in it with the Austro-Hungarian." Here, I suspect, he meant to say Czech instead of Magyar, for isn't Pilsen in Bohemia? Moreover, turn to the chapter on Prague in "New Cosmopolis," and you will find out in what highland his heart really is. In this book, indeed, is a vast hymn to all things Czechic—the Pilsen Urquell, the muffins stuffed with poppy-seed jam, the spiced chicken liver en casserole, the pretty Bohemian girls, the rose and golden glory of Hradschin Hill.... One thinks of other strange infatuations: the Polish Conrad's for England, the Scotch Mackay's for Germany, the Low German Brahms' for Italy. Huneker, I daresay, is the first Celto-Czech—or Celto-Magyar, as you choose. (Maybe the name suggests something. It is not to be debased to Hoon-eker, remember, but kept at Hun-eker, rhyming initially with nun and gun.) An unearthly marriage of elements, by all the gods! but there are pretty children of it....

Philadelphia humanely disgorged Huneker in 1878. His father designed him for the law, and he studied the institutes at the Philadelphia Law Academy, but like Schumann, he was spoiled for briefs by the stronger pull of music and the cacoëthes scribendi. (Grandpa John Huneker had been a composer of church music, and organist at St. Mary's.) In the year mentioned he set out for Paris to see Liszt; his aim was to make himself a piano virtuoso. His name does not appear on his own exhaustive list of Liszt pupils, but he managed to quaff of the Pierian spring at second-hand, for he had lessons from Theodore Ritter (né Bennet), a genuine pupil of the old walrus, and he was also taught by the venerable Georges Mathias, a pupil of Chopin. These days laid the foundations for two subsequent books, the "Chopin: the Man and His Music" of 1900, and the "Franz Liszt" of 1911. More, they prepared the excavations for all of the others, for Huneker began sending home letters to the Philadelphia Bulletin on the pictures that he saw, the books that he read and the music that he heard in Paris, and out of them gradually grew a body of doctrine that was to be developed into full-length criticism on his return to the United States. He stayed in Paris until the middle 80's, and then settled in New York.

All the while his piano studies continued, and in New York he became a pupil of Rafael Joseffy. He even became a teacher himself and was for ten years on the staff of the National Conservatory, and showed himself at all the annual meetings of the Music Teachers' Association. But bit by bit criticism elbowed out music-making, as music-making had elbowed out criticism with Schumann and Berlioz. In 1886 or thereabout he joined the Musical Courier; then he went, in succession, to the old Recorder, to the Morning Advertiser, to the Sun, to the Times, and finally to the Philadelphia Press and the New York World. Various weeklies and monthlies have also enlisted him: Mlle. New York, the Atlantic Monthly, the Smart Set, the North American Review and Scribner's. He has even stooped to Puck, vainly trying to make an American Simplicissimus of that dull offspring of synagogue and barbershop. He has been, in brief, an extremely busy and not too fastidious journalist, writing first about one of the arts, and then about another, and then about all seven together. But music has been the steadiest of all his loves; his first three books dealt almost wholly with it; of his complete canon more than half have to do with it.

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