Wednesday, January 1, 2014

James Huneker

On November 17, 1905, James Gibbons Huneker, America's foremost music critic and probably foremost critic of the arts in general, wrote to Edwin W. Morse, his editor at Charles Scribner's Sons, thanking him for the copy of The House of Mirth, then newly published, that Huneker read straight through in six hours. Huneker felt the book to be very theatrical, and proposed himself to Morse as the man who could turn it into a play:

Much of Lily Bart would evaporate in the hard, dry atmosphere of the theatre but that Jew Rosedale--he would loom up magnificently. I am not sure but that he would be the central figure in the play. He is wonderful. Studied from life and yet a summing up of racial traits and tribal ambitions. He is much more vital and convincing than Selden who, at the close, is a pale prig. However I am not writing a review--only a word of thanks for the pleasure the book has given me. And I am for personal reasons, curious about Mrs. Wharton's plans for a drama. I could knock the novel into an acting play in 3 months; though I fancy she will make her own version.
(Josephine Huneker, ed., Letters of James Gibbons Huneker, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1922, p. 47.)

In fact, Clyde Fitch was the one who made it into a play, a process Edith recounts in A Backward Glance.

But Huneker was far from an unalloyed admirer of Edith Wharton. Later he would call her "Edith Glacial Wharton," and compare her quite unfavorably with Dreiser--all a question of red-bloodedness. As for The Age of Innocence? "Pale, prim, proper, anemic."

This is hardly surprising. It would be hard to imagine two more different temperaments than Edith Wharton and James Huneker, she hosting a dinner party on the rue de Varenne, he quaffing a Pilsener (some say he quaffed a dozen a day) among the anarchists (he was not one of them, he just liked their company) at Justus Schwab's saloon on the Lower East Side. 

And they are two of my favorite writers.

In Robin Lynn's and my Guide to New York City Urban Landscapes (W.W. Norton, 2013), we reprint Huneker's marvelous essay "The Lungs," on New York parks, from his 1915 book New Cosmopolis. And Huneker figures prominently in two of my walking tours. Every year, on the Sunday nearest the anniversary of the December 16, 1893, premiere, at Carnegie Hall, of Antonin Dvořák's Symphony No. 9, I lead a tour I call, after Josef Škvorecký's wonderful novel, Dvořák in Love, on the Czech composer's life in New York between 1892 and 1895--a life in which Huneker played a major role. More surprisingly, in the tour I lead of Ditmas Park, a neighborhood in the Flatbush part of Brooklyn, I make a point of showing people the apartment building at 1618 Beverly Road, where Huneker and his wife lived from 1912 until his death, in that building, in 1921. 

Apartment building at 1618 Beverly Road, Flatbush, Brooklyn, where James Huneker lived from 1912 to 1921. (Photo used with permission of PropertyShark.)

In 1912, when the Hunekers moved to their rental apartment in Flatbush, Edith had lived for two years at 53 rue de Varenne. By 1921, when James Huneker died in Flatbush, Edith had, in addition to her apartment on the rue de Varenne, Pavillon Colombe and Ste.-Claire Château in Hyères. But Huneker liked it in Brooklyn. He was what Edith was not: a flâneur. She may have liked her motor flights. Huneker didn't drive. He got around--and boy did he get around--by trolley, el, and subway, and mostly on foot. He explored the nooks and crannies of Brooklyn, stopping often along the way for a beer. His "starting point," he wrote in 1915, "for many trips into the wilderness of platitudinous brownstone, brick and mortar, steel and stone," was Fred Schumm's Chop House, at Fulton and Adams Streets, where Shake Shack now is. "To it I always returned when the sun's rays slanted through the broad avenues westward. It is good to have an island of safety, and here is one for the average Brooklynite, not to count the casual transpontine visitor. Another is the old-time oyster and chop house of Gage & Tollner"--remarkable to think that in 1915 Gage & Tollner, which closed in 2004, was already being called "old-time"--across the street from Schumm's. It may not be so hard to imagine the teenage Edith Wharton out gallivanting with Emelyn Washburn, but Huneker was 58 when he made his sorties from Schumm's. (Edith, in 1915, was in war-torn France. Incidentally, Huneker was awarded the French Legion of Honor, for his service in promoting French writers and artists in America, in 1910. Edith Wharton was awarded it in 1917, for her work during wartime.)

James Huneker in 1915.

He liked Brooklyn in part because its homely charms reminded him of his native city. Huneker was born in Philadelphia on January 31, 1857. He was five years older than Edith, and six years younger than Minnie Jones, who was born in the same city and a world apart from Huneker. She came from Society Hill. He was born at 1434 North 7th Street, a desolate place today, but then a prosperous middle-class neighborhood with many Catholics (like the Hunekers) and Jews. He was not born in the lap of luxury, but his family was certainly not poor. In fact, his cultured parents were serious collectors of prints, a circumstance that greatly aided his visual education. In the 1870s he served an apprenticeship in the law. In 1874, his family moved to 1711 Race Street. At that time there was no Benjamin Franklin Parkway cutting through the neighborhood (it was a good 40 years off), but the house stood in the shadow of the Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul, one of the finest buildings in America. In the following year, at the age of 18, he began to study piano, and he began writing about music for the Evening Bulletin. Soon, he would give up the law for the world of music. For three years "I dreamed and yearned," Huneker wrote in his autobiographical Steeplejack (1920), "as only a lad love-sick with art can yearn. Life stretched like a lyric ray of moonlight paving the silvery waters of the future. Nothing seemed impossible. All was permitted. I felt an invincible force within my veins--the swelling sap! Ah! Youth is immortal." In 1878, the law now behind him, he went to Paris where for a year he audited piano classes at the Conservatoire and philosophy classes at the Sorbonne. Between 1879 and 1886 he lived in Philadelphia. In the latter year he moved to New York. He studied piano under the famous Rafael Joseffy (who had been a pupil of Liszt), through whom in 1888 Huneker became an instructor at Jeannette Thurber's National Conservatory of Music in America, the music school, on 17th Street just east of Irving Place (where Washington Irving High School now stands), that had the imprimatur, though not the financial backing, of the United States Congress. Huneker taught at the National Conservatory for ten years, including the years (1892 to 1895) when Antonín Dvořák was its director.

James Huneker, c. 1890, photograph by Napoleon Sarony.

In 1919, on the eve of Prohibition, Huneker wrote "I was entrusted by the President, Jeannette M. Thurber, with the care on his arrival of Dr. Antonin Dvorak" ("Musical Memories: Oscar Hammerstein and Dr. Dvorak," New York Times, August 24, 1919). Mrs. Thurber may have thought of putting Huneker together with Dvořák because they both had bibulous reputations. Huneker took Dvořák out for a night on the town, a tour through the "thirst belt," as Huneker referred to lower Third Avenue. The two men began at Goerwitz's, "across the street from the National Conservatory." It was also known as Scheffel Hall, and its distinctive building, a designated landmark, still stands on Third Avenue just north of 17th Street (not really across the street, but no matter). Alas, the building did not yet sport its present elaborate façade on the 1892 night Huneker and Dvořák went there--though that façade, added two years later, would later be very familiar to Huneker and Dvořák. They then walked down to Gus Lüchow's, on 14th Street--"for a musician not to be seen at Lüchow's argued that he was unknown in the social world of tone." "At each stopping-place Doc Borax"--as Conservatory staff called Dvořák--"absorbed a cocktail or two." As for Huneker, "alcohol I abhor. Therefore I stuck to my usual three-voiced invention of hops, malt, and water." Dvořák knew no English; Huneker no Czech. Therefore they conversed in German: "I rejoiced at meeting a man," Huneker wrote, "whose Teutonic accent, above all whose grammar, was worse than mine." After Dvořák had had nineteen cocktails, "maybe more," Huneker suggested they get something to eat. Dvořák would not hear of it, instead insisting that Huneker drink some slivovitz--"It makes warm after beer." At that point, Huneker knew he could no longer keep up, and left Old Borax--"He could drink as much spirits as I could beer, and never turn a hair"--to his own devices.

Huneker related his story of a night out with Dvořák (whose music, by the way, Huneker never especially cared for) for one reason: "Next year the nation will be put in cotton-wool and its feeble will coddled by noble precepts and winning words from mouths smoking with fiery wisdom." (Shortly after Prohibition began, federal agents raided Fred Schumm's Chop House.)

Huneker wrote for many publications, with his most notable association being with the New York Sun, for whom for a dozen or so years he wrote music, drama, and art criticism and reviewed books. He was as versatile a writer on the arts as his generation produced. In addition to the Evening Bulletin and the Sun, Huneker wrote for The Etude (a once famous music magazine), the New York Times, Puck, the Bookman, Scribners, the Smart Set, and the New York World, among other publications. His first of 22 books was Mezzotints in Modern Music (Internet Archive), published in 1899. (Huneker's piano teacher in Philadelphia, Michael Cross, was a friend of Huneker's father and, like him, a collector of prints.) Arguably Huneker's best-known book is Chopin: The Man and His Music (Project Gutenberg), published in 1900. 

In 1987, the music critic Samuel Lipman, then the publisher of the New Criterion, wrote in that magazine of his childhood as a piano prodigy, in California in the 1940s, and of his boredom as his strict teacher drilled him in the works of Chopin.

But wait. As the child stared sadly at the music before him, he found something more in those assorted yellow-bound volumes published by G. Schirmer than mere notes, the uninvited causes of his labors; there were words, too, enchanting descriptions of the Polish composer’s music. Indeed, the greatness and romance the child could hardly find emerging from his own exertions he found in the words the kind publisher had provided….the writer of the delicious and educative words that caused my time to move so profitably was James Huneker.

A very different writer from Samuel Lipman, the computer and cognitive scientist Douglas R. Hofstadter, wrote in his book I Am a Strange Loop (2007),

In my teens and twenties, I played a lot of Chopin on the piano, often out of the bright yellow editions published by G. Schirmer in New York City. Each of those volumes opened with an essay penned in the early 1900s by the American critic James Huneker. Today, many people would find Huneker's prose overblown, but I did not; its unrestrained emotionality resonated with my perception of Chopin's music, and I still love his style of writing and his rich metaphors.

Hofstadter recalls how he was struck by what Huneker wrote about one of Chopin's études (the eleventh, "Winter Wind," in opus 25, in A minor): "Small-souled men, no matter how agile their fingers, should not attempt it." This sets Hofstadter off on one of his characteristic thought experiments. If there are large-souled and small-souled men and women, then one's ensouledness is quantifiable. Hofstadter humorously suggests that we measure the size of souls in units called "hunekers."

Samuel Lipman wrote: "Unlike his music-critic colleagues (and friends) H.E. Krehbiel, Richard Aldrich, and Lawrence Gilman, Huneker was an exciting writer. In this day of the increasing penetration of criticism--especially music criticism--by the academy, Huneker’s work strikes me as possessing, and conveying, the golden value of artistic involvement. In the best sense, his style was always oriented to action, leading the reader toward ever more vital thought about and experience of art."

One of his last books, published in 1920, was his only novel, the remarkable Painted Veils (Internet Archive), a roman à clef about the soprano Mary Garden, of whom he also wrote in the same year in his nonfictional book Bedouins (Internet Archive). Mary Garden may be a model for Eden Bower in Willa Cather's great story "Coming, Aphrodite!" which was also published in 1920. (That, of course, was also the year Edith Wharton showed us Christine Nilsson on stage at the Academy of Music in Faust.)

On February 13, 1921, Huneker's funeral service took place, not in a church (he had long abandoned his parents' devout Catholicism), but in Town Hall, on 43rd Street between Sixth Avenue and Broadway. The 1,500-seat Town Hall, which had been built by the League for Political Education, which had advocated for passage of the Nineteenth Amendment, had, on the day of the funeral service, been open for exactly one month and one day. For the service, the hall was filled to capacity. The service took place four days after Huneker died of pneumonia nine days after his 64th birthday. At the close, a string quartet played Schumann's Träumerei, "associated," said the Times, "with the early days of the Thomas Orchestra, when Huneker first wrote of music in New York." His widow Josephine, to whom he had been married for the last 21 years, was there, as was his son and only child, Erik, from his second of three marriages (he was twice divorced). The honorary pallbearers included the Metropolitan Opera general manager Giulio Gatti-Casazza, the conductor Artur Bodanzky, the music historian Henry T. Finck, the theatrical impresario David Belasco, and, yes, Gus Lüchow. Mary Garden was there. Huneker's eulogists were the music critic Henry Krehbiel, the actor Francis Wilson, the lawyer and art collector John Quinn, and the lawyer George Wickersham.

Huneker's best friend from Philadelphia days was George Woodward Wickersham, who remained a lifelong friend. Wickersham and Huneker were law students together. But where Huneker gave up the law for the arts, Wickersham became a partner in one of New York's most prestigious firms, Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft. (Wickersham joined the firm in 1883, when it was called Strong & Cadwalader.) The first-named partner was John Lambert Cadwalader, granduncle of Mary Cadwalader Jones and a good friend of Edith Wharton--one of the vanishing American gentlemen of whom she wrote in A Backward Glance. Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft originated in 1792 as the law firm of John Wells. In 1818 it became Strong & Wells when Wells entered into partnership with George Washington Strong whose son, the great diarist George Templeton Strong (a Columbia College classmate of George Frederic Jones) served as a partner in the firm between 1845 and 1872. John Cadwalader joined in 1878, and Henry W. Taft (the brother of President William Howard Taft) in 1899. (The present name dates from 1914.) (John Cadwalader played a critical role in the formation of the New York Public Library.)

Wickersham was one of America's top corporation lawyers--indeed, it may even be said that he was one of America's most powerful men. In 1909, President Taft named Wickersham Attorney General of the United States. His vigorous enforcement of the Sherman Antitrust Act made him an enemy of many business leaders who when he was in private practice had counted on him as a friend. (It's also said it helped unelect Taft.)

Wickersham died in 1936 at the age of 77. (He was one year younger than Huneker.) His funeral took place at St. George's Episcopal Church on Stuyvesant Square. The baritone soloist in St. George's choir, Harry T. Burleigh, had sung there since 1894, or since two years after the African-American singer from Erie, Pennsylvania, had won a scholarship to the National Conservatory of Music. The Conservatory jury that awarded Burleigh his scholarship included James Huneker.

1 comment:

  1. A wonderful post! Love the story about the thirst-belt tour, and it’s great that you link to the books.