I don’t know enough about George Jean Nathan, but I own a groovy signed first edition by him, and just snapped this cool portrait of him with his colleague Mencken by Irving Penn, so he’s on my mind. Before I get to text (yes there will be quoting), some about his life.
Encyclopedia Britannica online tells me that he was born February 14, 1882 in Fort Wayne, Indiana and died April 8, 1958 in New York City. Graduated from Cornell in 1904, joined staff of New York Herald, became drama critic for various magazines, was co-editor with buddy H.L. Mencken of The Smart Set from 1914-1923, and the two men founded American Mercury in 1924.
Read more on him in a fine essay on Cornell’s web site: http://www.arts.cornell.edu/english/awards/nathan/bio.html
From this essay this about Nathan’s literary output:
Nathan wrote over forty books, almost all of them collections of his criticism. The most important are The Critic and the Drama (1922), in which he explains some principles behind his criticism; The Autobiography of an Attitude (1925) and The Intimate Notebooks of George Jean Nathan (1932), which reveal critical insights and show the reader something of Nathan’s compelling theatrical persona; andThe Theatre, The Drama, The Girls (1921), which is probably his best book. His brilliant Theatre Book of the Year series is much more than a theatrical annual: here he intersperses essays about the nature of drama, of comedy or tragedy, of the decline of burlesque and so forth with reviews of each season’s shows (1942-43 to 1950-51).
And also from the Cornell-posted article a perspective on the source of Nathan’s power:
Nathan was able to wield his influence by explaining the differences between the theatre that he saw and the theatre that he wanted to see. He did so with a singular, if sometimes antic, style that reached a huge audience. Nathan’s erudition, mingled with a zany and breathtaking wit, made him the most famous, highest paid, widely read and translated theatre critic in the world. He created modern American drama criticism and was crucial to the development of the modern American theatre and its drama.
I inherited from a theatre loving grandfather (who was also a newspaper editor in Detroit) five of the seven volumes of the Theatre Book of the Year series cited above. Due to my own love of rare first editions, I own a signed copy of his Art of the Night, published in 1928. I would like to share some pithy words of wisdom, in the form of “Advice to a Young Critic”, in the first chapter of this volume.
“The greatest weakness of the average critic is his wish to be more than a critic.”
“If you have violent prejudices, do not be afraid of them.”
“Take your work seriously, but not yourself.”
“Don’t be afraid to dissent from the opinions of the critically great.”
“… morals have no place in any consideration of art.”
“Pay no attention to what people say or write of you. A man in the brick-throwing business must expect occasionally to be hit by a brick.”
“To be a critic automatically implies a certain self-sufficiency and vanity. Never mind. You will never find an artist among the diffident and submissive.”
“Never fall into the error of believing that simply because a thing is unpopular it must have esoteric points of merit.”
“Don’t be afraid of being labeled a destructive critic. You will be in good company.”
“Since you are an American, write like an American.”
“The chief fault with many critics is that they strive to divert to themselves the attention, if any, that their criticism should attract to itself.”
“The bulk of American criticism is corrupted by a blind adherence to and championing of favorites.”
“A sound piece of criticism has never yet been spoiled by an injection of humor ….”
And so we have it. Laugh a little, trust your instincts, experience deeply, reveal your biases, be open to options, focus on the piece of art before you not the next witticism. This might work in any piece of writing. Heck, this might work for any piece of work at all.