While known primarily as a poet, Bliss Carman also developed a considerable reputation in his day as cultural commentator in the American magazine world and as a Canadian and American literary critic, in the period from 1888 to 1922. His essays on everything from canoeing and hiking through to the philosophy of poetry were published mainly from 1890 to about 1905 and appeared in such publications as the Book News Monthly, Bookman, Boston Evening Transcript, ChapBook, Commercial Advertiser, Criterion, Critic, Forum, Independent, Literary World, Literary Miscellany, New York Times, Progress, Saturday Night, and the World.
Carman had a solid reputation as a readable columnist and critic, and many of his efforts were assembled in his lifetime in four collections. The Poetry of Life (1905) is the most representative collection, as it displays the variety of his work and contains some of his best writing. These collections do not contain all of Carman’s prose, and a large number of his best pieces (especially his reviews) are today uncollected newspaper clippings in Canadian archives. Work is under way to collect and republish a larger selection from all of Carman’s prose.
Carman was a professional, journalistic writer who well understood that his popular audience would not stand for longwindedness, tonal dullness, obscurity of reference, or elaborate theoretical postures. He was an entertaining, cheerful writer, an excellent popular philosopher, and a good scholar who included his scholarly interests in an entertaining, or at least agile, way. He could write about the most potentially banal of topics (the history of the human foot, for example) with a natural intelligence, charm, and wit. He was highly conscious of the limitations of magazine journalism, and once said in a column that “The beauty of style is like the beauty of nature, achieved through infinite care of results, with infinite carelessness of time. The successes of journalism are achieved through infinite care of time, with infinite carelessness of the manner in which results are expressed” (“The Modern Athenian: A Note on Style,” 1896). He challenged
and provoked his audience as much as possible, within the constraints of popular taste.
As a social critic his efforts ranged from essays advocating socialism and commenting on the moral shame of American imperialism through to his sometimes missionary-like advocacy of mind cure and self-development. He was a vigorous apologist for all sorts of improving spiritual activities (e.g. meditation, nature observation, dance, art and poetry appreciation), and some of his essays had their origin as lectures he gave when on crosscountry tours in both Canada and the United States. His audience was more American than Canadian, so his comments on modern society are focused primarily on the American scene. He saw modern American culture as essentially mechanical, soulless, and mentally unhealthy. His readings of Romantic, transcendentalist, and Victorian authors, of advocates of Unitarianism like Frarnçois Delsarte, and of philosophers such as Josiah Royce and George Santayana (the latter both professors of his when he attended Harvard University), inspired him to write innumerable popular essays in moral philosophy in which he spoke against the distractions of materialism and on behalf of the antidote value of spiritual cultivation. Just as much of his poetry has a proto-hippie ring to it, most of his prose falls within the broadly mystical, curative, and countercultural aims of current New Age writing. His progressive ideas and attitudes give to his prose a very contemporary quality.
Carman always wrote from a solid core of common sense, and this prevented his mindcure writing from the worst excesses of avuncularity, while it stabilized his literary criticism with a likable tone and a convincing, durable set of aesthetic standards. He could be tough-minded in his reviews of his contemporaries, but most of his works of literary criticism were idealistic, appreciative essays advocating the poets and literary movements he saw as most fit to answer the soullessness of Victorian and impending modern times. He wrote general essays on literary criticism itself, on the artist’s role in society, and on the relationships between religion and art. In such pieces he often showed a generous and nicely explorative temperament as an advocate of “the masters and sustainers of the spiritual life, the seers and prophets, but the loving skeptics as well” (“Marginal Notes: Scribes and Pharisees,” 1899). As a theorist he commonly reminded himself and others to hold all literary “doctrines lovingly but lightly” (“The Artist and His Critic,” 1897). He was a dialogic rather than an authoritarian critic.
Most of Carman’s literary criticism advocates the work of the Romantics and the transcendentalist writers, but as editor, with Richard Hovey, of Chap-Book during the 1890s, he became aware of various manifestations of symbolist art and loudly advocated that tradition of writing as he saw it manifested in writers as otherwise diverse as Stephen Crane, Emily Dickinson, Maurice Maeterlinck, and William Butler Yeats. Carman is commonly seen as a straightbackwardly moving writer because of his scorn for the ironic mode, and he was to write that in his view, “Evil is the irony of the universe, the giant sarcasm of existence, the titanic gibe in the teeth of good” (“The Modern Athenian”).
Consequently, he appears anti-Modernist in his literary tastes, but his vigorous and very expressive advocacy of the symbolist tradition inspires some of his best critical essays and demonstrates that he understood an affinity between the symbolist writers’ aim to “create a sacred book” (“Marginal Notes,” 1898) and the more mystical compulsions of emerging Modernism.
Carman’s literary criticism was aimed at a popular audience and was clearly and thoughtfully written. It remains highly readable today because of its social progressiveness, its centrality in the literary-critical milieu of North America at the turn of the century, and as prose written by a sage who as a popular writer did not permit himself to become a hack.
William Bliss Carman. Cousin of the poet and fiction writer Charles G.D.Roberts and distant relative of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Born 15 April 1861 in Fredericton, New Brunswick. Studied at the University of New Brunswick, Fredericton, B.A. in Latin and Greek, 1881, M.A. in English literature, 1884; Oxford University and Edinburgh University, 1882–83; Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1886–88.
Remained a “genteel vagabond” and bachelor all his life. Lived mostly in the United States, working as a literary journalist for journals and magazines in New York and Boston; traveled extensively in both North America and Europe. Cofounding editor, Chap-Book, from 1894. Met Mary Perry King, who became his patron and lifelong friend, 1896. Awards: Lorne Pierce Medal, 1928; many honorary degrees. Died (of a heart seizure) in New Canaan, Connecticut, 8 June 1929.
Essays and Related Prose
The Kinship of Nature, 1903
The Friendship of Art, 1904
The Poetry of Life, 1905
The Making of Personality, 1908
Other writings: many volumes of poetry (including Low Tide on Grand Pré: A Book of Lyrics, 1893; Vagabondia series, with Richard Hovey, 1894–1900; Ballads and Lyrics, 1902, revised edition, 1923; Sappho: One Hundred Lyrics, 1903; Sanctuary: Sunshine House Sonnets, 1929), broadsheets, lyrical pageants, and correspondence (including in
Letters, edited by H.Pearson Gundy, 1981, and Bliss Carman’s Letters to Margaret Lawrence 1927–1929, edited by D.M.R.Bentley, 1995).
Sorfleet, John R., “A Primary and Secondary Bibliography of Bliss Carman’s Work,” in Bliss Carman: A Reappraisal, edited by Gerald Lynch, Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press, 1990
Bentley, D.M.R., “Carman and Mind Cure: Theory and Technique,” in Bliss Carman: A Reappraisal, edited by Gerald Lynch, Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press, 1990
Sorfleet, John R., Introduction to The Poems of Bliss Carman, Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1976
Whalen, Terry, Bliss Carman and His Works, Downsview, Ontario: ECW Press, 1983
Whalen, Terry, “Carman as Critic,” in BliS Carman: A Reappraisal, edited by Gerald Lynch, Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press, 1990
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