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French have an ideal of wise and moderate living in
us; we have already the best ordered house in
Europe: haven't we?"

"Certainly," I replied, "by far the healthiest and
happiest of modern states."

"That's what exasperates us," he went on, "about
this German menace. We want to put our house
in order, to attend to this weakness, bring about that
reform and realize our high ideal of social justice;
but we are perpetually hindered by that barbarous
menace on our frontier."


The political situation again absorbed his interest,
and the talk only flitted from it occasionally to other
subjects. I can only recall one literary judgment
which perhaps deserves to be recorded.

"Rene de Gourmont," he said, "is one of the men
I admire most in contemporary French literature:
he always interests me."

Then we talked of a bust of the master himself
that was just completed and a drawing from the
bust, and he discussed the differences between these
allied creations with acute understanding and as dis-
passionately as if he himself were not in any way

Words can hardly render the ingenuous simplic-
ity, the transparent sincerity of the man: no slight-
est trace in him of affectation or pomposity: no
pose of any sort. As far as manners go, Anatole
France almost reaches perfection. His simple atti-
tude towards his own work and towards friends and
foreigners alike filled me with admiration. I had
never met anything like it among men of my own
race save in two famous instances: Thomas Bayard,
the American Ambassador in London, was one; and
Thomas Ellis, the Chief Whip at one time of the
Welsh Liberal Party, was the other; both these men
had the genius of perfect manners. Probably be-
cause of his astounding intellectual curiosity, Ana-
tole France is engrossed by all the barren journalistic
controversies of the time, though at heart more


deeply interested still in ideas for their own sake, and
chiefly in those aperciis which throw light on man
and man's relation to the universe. Like Meredith,
he loves to flit about from thought to thought; but
Meredith seemed to me mired in a convention of
conduct, while France was bird free of all conven-
tion and contemptuous of mere sexual morality.

"Surely in England," he said, "that dreary Puri-
tanism is merely hypocritical? You cannot for ever
go on ignoring differences of sex."

"I believe with Voltaire," I replied, "that prud-
ery of speech is always a sign of loose morals; when
'purity goes out of the manners, it takes refuge in
the language.' "

"A fine piece of insight," he exclaimed; "but your
detachment surprises me; I thought all Englishmen
loved even the faults of their countrymen?"

"Nearly every man has a certain partiality for his
own country and his own people," I replied, "but I
am an American and feel that it is difficult for a
writer or artist in England today to be patriotic.
Englishmen as a rule despise both letters and art.
In France you are free; men of letters are organ-
ized and respected; in England they are unorganized
and disdained, and if any of them are honored it
is sure to be some mediocrity who beats the pa-
triotic drum, or wins popularity with sickly senti-

"You are much worse off, then, than we are," he


decided, "I have always understood that English-
ment don't care much for the things of the spirit."

"An artist In England," I replied, "Is regarded
as if he were an acrobat, and a great writer and
great man like Meredith Is not so highly appreci-
ated as a tenth-rate general or politician or ex-
plorer; Indeed, he Is on much the same level as a
trick-b I cyclist, or actor or dancer. Shakespeare was
treated like a menial: Blake died In want of neces-
saries: and in our own day poets of the first rank
have committed suicide out of sheer poverty. Lit-
erature and Art are less esteemed In London than
in any other civilized capital except New York."

"Yet we have an Idea," he objected, "that an
aristocratic society Is always more favorable to the
artist or man of letters than a democracy; England,
then, forms an exception to the rule?"

"No, no," I replied, "little as her barbarian
aristocracy cares for art or letters, it still cares more
than the middle class or the democracy. You have
no Idea how low the Anglo-Saxon standard of taste
and knowledge Is : George Ohnet In England would
be more highly esteemed than a Flaubert or a Bal-
zac; because he would have more readers and make
more money."

"It Is still, then, an advantage to be born a
Frenchman," said Anatole France, and I could do
nothing but admit that for the artist and writer, as
for the majority of men, it certainly Is an advantage.

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Online LibraryFrank HarrisContemporary portraits → online text (page 20 of 20)