Sunday, December 14, 2014

Misinforming a Nation

Willard Huntington Wright - Misinforming a Nation (1917)

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For book people the 11th edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica is legendary, sometimes called the Scholar's Britannica and widely praised as a pinnacle of the encyclopedia-creator's art (whatever that might be called).  I have a book from a few years back that reprints many of the more interesting entries and much of the 11th has been incorporated into Wikipedia.  It's far from perfect of course - the creators could do nothing to account for the advance of scholarship and science but they certainly could have avoided the blatant racism of some entries.

But the 11th raised some controversy from the start.  Willard Huntington Wright was an influential art critic better known today under his mystery writer pseudonym S.S. Van Dine (the Philo Vance stories).  Not content with journal articles he wrote this entire book attacking the 11th edition for being too unimaginative, too puritanical and especially too British.  The Britannica (shouldn't the name have tipped him off?) didn't just rub Wright the wrong way - he literally thought it was an assault against American culture.  "No more vicious and dangerous education influence on America can readily be conceived than the articles in this encyclopedia. They distort the truth and disseminate false standards."

Wright then goes on for 200 pages enumerating what he considers distortions and omissions, often in much detail.  (The Nation's June 21 review said it's "the strict application of the inch-rule in literary criticism".)  This isn't just an off-the-cuff rant.  When discussing the space given to minor British poets he gives the number of lines in each entry.  Swinburne received a two-page biography but Wright attacks the Britannica for its sniffy dismissal of the poet's "animalism" (hardly a claim current readers of Swinburne would lay against him).  Debussy and Berlioz received much less space than Arthur Sullivan. Kant gets less than Locke or Hume.  William James only 28 lines.  American drama almost entirely overlooked.  There's even an appendix of omissions though most are today forgotten - from the writers probably only Bierce, Synge, Dreiser, Schnitzler and Wharton still have currency.

Perhaps more to the point is Wright's focus on the Britannica's "unconscious ethical prejudice coupled with a blind and self-contented patriotism." (p176)  Many figures have their moral character questioned in the Britannica's text (though to be fair that still happens today with Rousseau).  Or with music where "it would seem impossible to find any plausible basis for the glorification of English musical genius" though the Britannica does just that.  For American poetry "it is deficient almost to the extreme of worthlessness."  The entry on Poe, he points out, was written by a naval expert with no apparent expertise in literature.  American science and invention receive similar short treatment.

When I first saw this book I expected some cranky rant and though I'm not familiar enough with the 11th Britannica to evaluate the claims properly the book doesn't seem quite so unreasonable.  It's certainly done at a high pitch of outrage but if Wright's points are even partly true then that's not inappropriate.  Oh yes it's still a rant and still quite cranky but why else would any of us still read it a century later?