J. L. Onderdonk, letter defending McClurg, Dial

May 1, 1896, xx, 263 -4


Onderdonk (1854-99), lawyer, newspaper editor, Idaho state legislator, died in the Alaska gold rush. A direct result of Onderdonk's support of McClurg's attack on The Red Badge was that McClurg arranged to publish Onderdonk's History of American Verse: 1610-1897, which contains no mention of Stephen Crane's volume of poetry, Black Riders (1895).

The animus of the articles in British magazines during our Civil War, as quoted by 'A. C. McC.' in your issue of April 16, sufficiently explains the English enthusiasm for that literary absurdity called The Red Badge of Courage. The trend of the whole work to prove the absence of such a thing as a gentleman in the union army may be justly expected to arouse the resentment of the class of whom 'A. C. McC.' is such a striking and honorable example. If this work is realism, it is realism run mad, rioting in all that is revolting to man's best instincts, and utterly false to nature and to life. The Federal army doubtless possessed its share of ruffianly officers and stupid brainless men, but to select such and to hold them up as types is not true realism. Yet this is the work which one London periodical compares favorably with the writings of Tolstoi and Zola, and concerning which another London periodical says: 'There is no possibility of resistance when once you are in its grasp.'

The examples of hysterical composition given by 'A. C. McC.' might be supplemented by others fully as absurd taken from nearly every page of the book. Amid so much that is strained and affected there is not one agreeable character, hardly one praiseworthy sentiment, and certainly not a new or original thought. But as the book is heralded as one of the literary successes of the year, it is but fair to call attention to a few examples of its latter-day English. We can bear with equanimity the author's vulgarisms and mannerisms, his use of the split infinitive, and of such words as reliable, standpoint, and others which the slipshod fashion of the day has authorized by general usage. We may even attribute to 'typographical errors' such careless constructions as the following:

A shrill lamentation rang out filled with profane illusions to a general.

His anger was directed not so much against the men whom he knew were rushing.

Tottering among them was the rival color bearer, whom the youth saw had been bitten.

But what is to be said of the following bright gems, culled almost at random while turning over these 'irresistible' pages?

Set upon it was the hard and dark lines.

There was no obvious questions, nor figurings, nor diagrams. There was apparently no considered loopholes.

He departed ladened. The youth went with his friend, feeling a desire to throw his heated body onto the stream.

Once he found himself almost into a swamp.

The majesty of he who dares give his life.

He could not flee no more than a little finger can commit a revolution from the hand.

Eugene Field [newspaper columnist, translator of Horace, author of 'Little Boy Blue'], not long before his death, remarked: 'The one crime that cannot be righteously charged against our fin de siecle poetasters is slovenliness.' Unhappily our fin de siecle prose writers are peculiarly susceptible to the charge. Can this general butchery of the language be the nemesis of 'dialect literature,' which has done so much to bring sensible and intelligible English into ill repute?

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