The Atlantic Monthly/Volume 2/Number 5/Literary Notices

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search

Featured in Vol 2., No.5 of The Atlantic Monthly. (October 1858)


Études sur Pascal. Par M. Victor Cousin. Cinqième Edition, revue et augmentée. Paris: 1857. pp. 566. 8vo.

We render hearty thanks to M. Cousin for this new edition of a favorite work. No library which contains Pascal's "Provinciales" and "Pensées" should be without it.

"Of all the monuments of the French language," says M. Cousin, in the Avant-propos to this new edition, "none is more celebrated than the work 'Les Pensées,' and French literature possesses no artist more consummate than Pascal. Do not expect to find in this young geometrician, so soon consumed by disease and passion, the breadth, surface, and infinite variety of Bossuet, of Bossuet, who, supported by vast and uninterrupted study, rose and rose until he gained the loftiest reaches of intellect and art, and commanded at pleasure every tone and every style. Pascal did not fulfil all his destiny. Besides the mathematics and natural philosophy he knew scarcely more than a little theology, and he barely passed through good society. It is true, Pascal passed away from earth quickly; but during his short life he discerned glimpses of the beau ideal, he attached himself to it with all his heart and soul and strength, and he never allowed anything to leave his hands unless it bore its lively impress. So great was his passion for perfection, that unchallenged tradition tells us he wrote the seventeenth 'Provinciale' thirteen times over. 'Les Pensées' are merely fragments of the great work on which he consumed the last years of his life; but these fragments sometimes present so finished a beauty, that we do not know which most to admire, the grandeur and vigor of the sentiments and ideas, or the delicacy and depth of the art."

This praise is unexaggerated. What a career was run by this genius! Discovering the science of geometry at twelve years of age,—next inventing the arithmetical machine,—discovering atmospheric pressure, while every philosopher was prating about "Nature's horror of a vacuum,"—inventing the wheelbarrow, to divert his mind from the pains of the toothache, and succeeding,—inventing the theory of probabilities,—establishing the first omnibuses that ever relieved the public,—then writing the "Provinciales,"—dying at thirty-three, leaving behind him two small volumes (you may carry them in your pocket) which are the unchallengeable title-deeds of his immortal fame, the favorite works of Gibbon, Voltaire, Macaulay, and Cousin! Where else can so crowded and so short a career be found?

It is scarcely possible to repress a smile in reading this work and discovering the patient care with which M. Cousin avoids speaking of the "Provinciales." And it is strange to say (no contemptible proof of the influence exercised by the Church of Rome, even when checked as it is in France) that no decent edition of the "Provinciales" can be found in the French language. While we possess M. Cousin's "Études sur Pascal," and M. Havet's edition of "Les Pensées," the only editions of "Les Provinciales" of recent date are the miserable publications of Charpentier and the Didots. Editions of Voltaire and Rousseau are numerous, elaborate, and elegant; for atheism is pardoned much more easily than abhorrence of the Jesuits.

The volume named at the head of this article contains a great many valuable documents relating to Pascal and his family: all of Pascal's correspondence known to exist, including his celebrated letter on the death of Étienne Pascal, his father, which is usually printed in "Les Pensées," being cut up into short sentences to fit it for that work, a large part of it being omitted; his singular essay on Love; curious details concerning the De Roanner family; an essay on the true text of the "Pensées"; a curious fac-simile of a page of that work; and a discussion (perhaps M. Cousin would say a refutation) of Pascal's philosophy. But we must protest against the easy manner in which M. Cousin wears his honors. When a book has reached its fifth edition and is evidently destined to a good many more during the author's lifetime, he lies under an obligation to place the new information he may have collected, and the additional thoughts which may have occurred to him, during the intervals between the different editions, in a form more convenient to the render than new prefaces and new notes. To master the information contained in this work is no recreation, but a severe task, and one not to be accomplished except upon repeated perusals of the book. This is the more inexcusable because M. Cousin is now free from all official and professional cares; and it would involve the less labor to him, as he never writes, but dictates all his compositions.

Belle Brittan on a Tour; at Newport, and Here and There. New York: Derby & Jackson. 1858.

The compulsion of hunger, or the request of friends, was the excuse for the printing of sorry books in Pope's time; and it has not become obsolete yet. The writer of the book, the title of which we have given above, pleads the latter alternative as the occasion of this publication. He says it was "a few friends" that transferred this request. It is unfortunate for him that he had any so void of judgment and empty of taste. He thinks his Letters will "receive unjust censure," as well as "undue praise." We think that he may relieve his mind of any such apprehension. We cannot think his book at all likely to receive more dispraise than it richly merits. A more discreditable one, not absolutely indictable, we hope, has seldom issued from the American press.

What motive the author had in assuming a female character, we know not. He certainly has been very unfortunate in his female acquaintance, if he accurately imitates their tone of thought and style of talk, in his letters. Should they happen to fall in the way of any foreigners, we beg them to believe that this is not the way in which American women converse. But we think that there can scarcely be a cockney so spoony as not to "spy a great peard under her muffler," and know that it is a man awkwardly masquerading in women's clothes. It is a libel on the women of the country, to put such balderdash into the mouth of one who may be supposed to have been finished at a fifth-rate boarding-school.

The letters are in the worst style of the "Own Correspondents" of third-rate papers. The "deadhead" perks itself in your face at every turn, in flunkeyish gratitude for invitations, drinks, dinners, and free passes,—from "the gentlemanly Lord Napier," down to "intelligent and gentlemanly" railway-conductors, "gentlemanly and attentive" hotel-clerks, "gracious, gentlemanly, and gallant" tavern-keepers, and their "lovely and accomplished brides." The soul of a footman is expressed by the pen of an abigail,—and the one not a Humphrey Clinker, nor the other a Winifred Jenkins,—and we are expected to admire the result as a good imitation of a lively, intelligent, well-bred American young lady! We protest against the profanation.

The letters take a wide range of subject, and treat of "Shakspeare, taste, and the musical glasses," in a vein that would have done no discredit to Lady Blarney and Miss Arabella Wilhelmina Amelia Skeggs themselves. We might divert our readers with some specimens of criticism, or opinion, did our limits admit of such entertainment. We can only inform them, on Belle Brittan's authority, that worthy Dr. Charles Mackay, who suffers throughout the book from intermittent—nay, chronic—attacks of puffery, is "one of the best living poets of England"; Mademoiselle Lamoureux, the danseuse, is "better than Ellsler"; and pretty Mrs. John Wood, the lively soubrette of the Boston Theatre, "possesses many of the rarest requisites of a great actress"! But these are inanities which an inexperienced and half-taught girl might possibly utter in a familiar letter. Not so, we trust, as to the belief expressed by Belle Brittan, in puffing "Jim Parton's, Fanny Fern's Jim's," Life of Burr,—"more charming than a novel," because, as she implies, of the successful libertinism of its hero,—when she says, speaking in the name of the maidens of America, "We all, I suppose, must fall, like our first parents, when the hour of our temptation comes"!

We should not have given the space we have bestowed on this worthless book, had it not been made the occasion of newspaper puffs innumerable, recommending it to the public as something worthy of their time and money. It is one of the worst signs of our time that a false good-nature or imperfect taste should lead respectable papers to give currency to books destitute of all merit, by the application to them of stereotyped phrases of commendation. These letters, without a grace of style, without a flash of wit, without a genial ray of humor, deformed by coarse breeding, vulgar self-conceit, and ignorant assumption, are bepraised as if they were fresh from the mint of genius, and bore the image and superscription of Madame de Sévigné or Lady Mary Wortley! This evil must be cured, or the daily press may find that it will cure itself.

We know nothing of the author of this book, excepting what he has here shown us of himself. He may be capable of better things, and when they come before us, we shall rejoice to do them justice. But we advise him, first of all, to discard his disguise, which becomes him as ill as the gown of Mrs. Ford's "maid's aunt, the fat woman of Brentford," did Sir John Falstaff. Or, if he will persist in playing the part of a woman, let him bear in mind that to be unmanly is not necessarily to be womanly, and that it does not follow that one writes like a lady because he does not write like a gentleman.

Appleton's Cyclopædia of Drawing. Designed as a Text-book for the Mechanic, Architect, Engineer, and Surveyor. Comprising Geometrical Projection, Mechanical, Architectural, and Topographical Drawing, Perspective, and Isometry. Edited by W. E. Worthen. New York: D. Appleton & Co. 1857.

Mr. Worthen has given us in this book a most judicious and complete compilation of the best works on the various branches of "practical" drawing,—having, with real thoughtfulness and knowledge of what was needed in a handbook, condensed all the most important rules and directions to be found in the works of MM. Le Brun and Armengaud on geometrical and mechanical drawing, Ferguson and Garbett on architectural, and Williams, Gillespie, Smith, and Frome, on topographical drawing.

It includes a very full chapter of geometrical definitions, a complete and minute description of all the implements of mechanical drawing, and solutions of all the useful problems of geometrical drawing,—a part of the work especially needed by practical mechanics, and hitherto to be found, so far as we know, only in the form of results in the pocket-books of tables, or in the lengthy and elaborate treatises of the heavy cyclopædias, or works specially devoted to the topic.

There is an admirably condensed treatise on the mechanical powers, containing all the problems of use in construction, with tables of the mechanical properties of materials. In mechanical drawing there are directions for the most complicated drawings, going up to the last improvements in the steam-engine. The same completeness of elementary instruction marks the section on architectural drawing, though in this department we should have liked a fuller and better-chosen series of examples, especially of domestic architecture,—an Italian villa planned by Mr. Upjohn being the only really tasteful and appropriate dwelling-house given. The designs by Downing, rarely much more than commodious residences with great neatness rather than artistic beauty, stand very well for that style of building which consults comfort and attains it, but it is a misuse of words to call them artistic. Picturesque they may be at times, but often the affectation of external style puts Downing's designs into the category of Gothic follies and Grecian villanies, in which the outside gives the lie to the inside,—emulating in wood the forms of stone, giving to cottages on whose roof snow will never lie three inches deep all the pitch a Swiss châlet would need. We are especially sorry to see a plate of Thomas's house in Fifth Avenue, New York,—the most absurd and ludicrous pile of building material which can be found on the avenue,—and to find such evidence of taste as is shown by the editor's commendation of it as "uniting richness and grandeur of effect," "admirably suited," etc. Mr. Worthen, however, generally abstains from much expression of opinion as to styles or the respective merits of works.

His examples of the steam-engine are nearly all from American models, and include the oscillating engines of the "Golden Gate," the last important advance in the construction of the marine engine; for, although the form of the oscillator has been known for years, it had never been applied to marine uses until the success of the "Golden Gate" proved its applicability to the heaviest engines. The examples of architectural details and ornaments are copious, and represent all styles with great fairness; but there is much confusion in the numbering of the plates, so that it is a problem at times to find the illustration desired.

The tinted illustrations, though answering their proposed purpose, are a disgrace to the art of lithotinting,—coarse, ineffective, and cheap. The publishers, we think, would have profited by a little more liberality in this respect.

This work was published before January 1, 1927, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.