"There is evidence," Cynthia Ozick writes, that master novelist Henry James "would not have excluded the literary essay, of which he was equal master, from art's force and beauty."
With that modest and notably Jamesian sentence, Ozick pens the tribute that her grateful readers would offer to her.
Her literary essays, 17 of which are presented here, indeed display an elegant power. Ozick touches on subtle questions of morality that can be baldly expressed in the question, Can a bad person produce enduring art?
But she never asks the question that bluntly, because the answer is not that simple.
Look at Isaac Babel. It turns out that "Red Cavalry," his account of the Cossack riders after the Russian Revolution, was based on a diary of his days with them that reveals how this writer, who died in a Soviet prison, was "complicit" in the evil deeds he witnessed.
Mark Twain, the compassionate, the humane, was living in Vienna when the affair of Alfred Dreyfus, the French Jewish officer falsely imprisoned for treason, had set Europe ablaze with anti-Semitism.
He wrote an article for Harper's, "Concerning the Jews," of which Ozick says, "Part polemic, part reprimand, part self-congratulatory panegyric, the essay was honorably motivated but ultimately obtuse and harmful." You can hear the pain in her words as she relates how Twain reported that Jews were hated because of their fondness for money.
Then there is T.S. Eliot, who really was anti-Semitic, and who put his prejudice on display in his poetry for the whole world to read.
In a long, marvelous essay, "T.S. Eliot at 101," Ozick explores Eliot's tormented soul and his role as a high priest of modernism.
"In the end," she writes, "he could not disengage the mind that created from the man who suffered; they were inseparable. But the mind and the man--the genius and the sufferer--had contributed, in influence and authority, more than any other mind and man (with the exception perhaps of Picasso) to the formation of the most significant aesthetic movement of the 20th century."
She begins an essay called "What Henry James Knew" with this observation:
"As modernism sinks in, or fades out--as it recedes into a kind of latter-day archaism, Cubism turned antiquated, the old literary avant-garde looking convincingly moth-eaten--certain writers become easier to live with."
Among these are Joyce, Proust, Woolf, "surely Pound and Eliot--from all of these . . . the veil draws back. . . . One might almost say . . . that they are objectively less 'modern' than they once were. Their techniques have been absorbed for generations. . . ."
But Ozick regards Henry James as "an avatar of modernism," and embarks on a brilliant and beguiling inquiry into the great shock he suffered at the rejection of a play in 1905 and how subsequently he came to look into the often-terrifying depths of the unconscious.
In one essay, on the now scarcely remembered writer Alfred Chester, her contemporary, Ozick touchingly shows us the excitement of young people whose sights are set on literature in postwar New York.
In another she considers modernism and its problems by telling with delicious detail the laughable struggle in the first three decades of the century by the American Academy of Arts and Letters in New York against modernity in all its manifestations, like Robert Frost.
This campaign for gentility was led by Robert Underwood Johnson, a poet and editor.
Ozick concludes on a note typical of her turn of mind. Despite our laughter, the ideals Johnson upheld--"virtue, harmony, wisdom, beauty"--"are refreshing to an era tormented by unimaginable atrocity and justifiable cynicism."