Mr. Cunninghame Graham
( Originally Published 1919 )
MR. CUNNINGHAME GRAHAM is a grandee of contemporary literature. He is also a grandee of revolutionary politics. Both in literature 'and in politics he is a figure of challenge for the love of challenge more than any other man now writing. Other men challenge us with Utopias, with moral laws and so forth. But Mr. Graham has little of the prophet or the moralist about him. He expresses himself better in terms of his hostilities than in terms of visionary cities and moralities such as Plato and Shelley and Mazzini have built for us out of light and fire. It is a temperament, indeed, not a vision or a logic, that Mir. Graham has brought to literature. He blows his fantastic trumpet outside the walls of a score of Jerichos—Jerichos of empire, of cruelty, of self-righteousness, of standardized civilization—and he seems to do so for the sheer soldierly joy of the thing. One feels that if all the walls of all the Jerichos were suddenly to collapse before his trumpet-call he would be the loneliest man alive. For he is one of those for whom, above all, " the fight's the thing."
It would be difficult to find any single purpose running through the sketches which fill most of his books. His characteristic book is a medley of cosmopolitan " things seen and comments grouped together under a title in which irony lurks. Take the volume called Charity, for example. Both the title of the book and the subject-matter of several of the sketches may be regarded as a challenge to the unco' guid (if there are any left) and to respectability (from which even the humblest are no longer safe). On the other hand, his title may be the merest lucky-bag accident. It seems likely enough, however, that in choosing it the author had in mind the fact that the supreme word of charitableness in the history of man was spoken concerning a woman who was taken in adultery. It is scarcely an accident that in Charity a number of the chapters relate to women who make a profession of sin.
Mr. Graham is unique in his treatment of these members of the human family. If he does not throw stones at them, as the Pharisees of virtue did, neither does he glorify them as the Pharisees of vice have done in a later generation. He simply accepts them as he would accept a broken-down nation or a wounded animal, and presents them as characters in the human drama. It would be more accurate to say as figures in the human picture," for he is far more of a painter than a dramatist. But the point to be emphasized is that these stories are records, tragic, grim or humorous, as the portraits in Chaucer are—acceptances of life as it is—at least, of life as it is outside the vision of policemen and other pillars of established interests. For Mr. Graham can forgive you for anything but two things—being successful (in the vulgar sense of the term) or being a policeman.
It would be wrong, however, to suggest that Mr. Graham achieves the very finest things in charity. It is the charity of tolerance, or the minor charity, that is most frequent in his pages. The larger charity which we find in Tolstoi and the great teachers is not here. We could not imagine Mr. Graham forgetting himself so far in his human sympathies as Ruskin did when he stooped and kissed the filthy beggar outside the church door in Rome. Nor do we find in any of these sketches of outcasts. that sense of humanity bruised and exiled that we get in such a story as Maupassant's Boule de Suif. Mr. Graham gloriously insists upon our recognizing our human relations, but many of them he introduces to us as first cousins once removed rather than as brothers and sisters by the grace of God.
He does more than this in his preface, indeed, a marvellous piece of reality and irony which tells how a courtesan in Gibraltar fell madly in love with a gentleman-sponger who lived on her money while he could, and then took the first boat home with discreet heartlessness on coming into a bequest from a far-off cousin. " Good God, a pretty sight I should have looked . . ." he explained to a kindred spirit as they paced the deck of the boat to get an appetite. I like her well enough, but what I say is, Charity begins at home, my boy. Ah, there's the dinner bell ! " Mr. Graham has a noble courtesy, an unerring chivalry that makes him range himself on the side of the bottom dog, a detestation of anything like bullying—every gift of charity, indeed, except the shy genius of pity. For lack of this last, some of his sketches, such as. Un Autre Monsieur, are mere anecdotes and decorations.
Possibly, it is as a romantic decorator that Mr. Graham, in his art as opposed to his politics, would prefer to be judged. He has dredged half the world for his themes and colours, and Spain and Paraguay and Morocco and Scotland and London's tangled streets all provide settings for his romantic rearrangements of life in this book. He has a taste for uncivil scenes, as Henley had a taste for uncivil words. Even a London street becomes a scene of this kind as he pictures it in his imagination with huge motor-buses, like demons of violence, smashing their way through the traffic. Or he takes us to some South American forest, where the vampire bats suck the blood of horses during the night. Or he introduces us to a Spanish hidalgo, " tall, wry-necked, and awkwardly built, with a nose like a lamprey and feet like coracles,"
(For there is the same note of violence, of exaggeration, in his treatment of persons as of places.) Even in Scotland, he takes us by preference to some lost mansion standing in grotesque contrast to the " great drabness of prosperity which overspreads the world." He is a great scene-painter of wildernesses and lawless places, indeed. He is a Bohemian, a lover of adventures in wild and sunny lands, and even the men and women are apt to become features in the strange scenery of his pilgrimages rather than dominating portraits. In his descriptions he uses a splendid rhetoric such as no other living writer of English commands. He has revived rhetoric as a literary instrument. Aubrey Beardsley called Turner a rhetorician in paint. If we were to speak of Mr. Graham as a painter in rhetoric, we should be doing more than making a phrase.
But Mr. Graham cannot be summed up in a phrase. To meet him in his books is one of the desirable experiences of contemporary literature, as to hear him speak is one of the desirable experiences of modern politics. Protest, daring, chivalry, the passion for the colour of life and the colour of words—he is the impersonation of these things in a world that is muddling its way half-heartedly towards the Promised Land.
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