The literary fortunes of Arthur Machen waxed and waned throughout his lifetime with brief bursts of popularity followed by longer lulls into obscurity. The 1890s and the bleak years of the Great War were moments of success for the idiosyncratic writer in his native Britain. His relationship with American audiences took on a different pattern: one of slow, gradual building and eventual collapse.
In the early to mid-teens, books by Machen, rare and scarce in the States, were being “discovered” by a bibliophilic segment of the American intelligentsia, especially in Chicago and at Harvard. Critic Vincent Starrett, novelist James Cabell Branch and poet Robert Hillyer where among those who took up Machen’s banner with favorable articles and pamphlets.
By the 1920s, this groundwork blossomed into the “Machen Boom.” The interest had grown to such an extent that long out-of-print volumes by Machen were not only issued for the first time in America, but republished at home. Alongside this trend, wealthy collectors hunted down rarities of the obscure, but now trendy, author. Machen, not one to be sentimental over editions of his books, happily sold off his own collection to American enthusiasts. The Boom also triggered a flowering of new work, most importantly being Machen’s three volumes of enigmatic memoirs – some of his finest material. At the beginning of his sixties, Machen, as they say, had made it.
However, fame is fickle trollop, and by 1926, the Boom had fizzled out. Interest in the British writer fell sharply in the States, and has never fully recovered.
Machen’s relationship with his American admirers is a complex one. Lightly put, his public rupture with Starrett was not his finest hour, while on other hand, his “Introduction” to Hillyer’s Halt in the Garden (1925) is a miniature gem. It is likely that Machen never truly understood the sudden and strange attraction of certain American writers and collectors, and perhaps, at times, he even behaved with less than plentiful gratitude. Yet, the surge did him much good. It provided Machen with income during the decade following the end of his journalism career. As Depression-weary America turned into itself, the boost had gained him recognition and support from his countrymen which would see Machen through the turbulent thirties and ended with a comfortable pension from the British government.
The following is a British republication of an article by an uncredited American critic. It is a curious snapshot taken in 1915 – amid both the raging struggles of the European war and the heated controversy that was the Angle of Mons. It is a midpoint between the quiet buildup of American interest in Machen and its bursting apogee.
It’s been a century since the first Machen Boom. As we in America drift further into 2021 with its illnesses, real and imagined, it would be nice to witness a second, illuminating explosion of appreciation and enthusiasm for the Apostle of Wonder.
(A special thanks to Adam Trionfo for transcribing the original article.)
Under the heading, “Arthur Machen and his Belated Fame,” the “Boston Evening Transcript,” one of America’s literary daily newspapers, publishes a long and exceptionally interesting analysis of Mr. Machen and his work. The article was evoked by the publication of “The Bowmen,” which Mr. Machen wrote for “The Evening News.”
Mr. Machen is described as Mystic, Philosopher and Story-Teller, and the sub-title to the article reads, “The Ironic Climax to Years of Achievement Comes at Last in a Halfpenny Newspaper Tale of the War.”
We quote the following extracts:
Not at all complicated by the appearance of his little book of war fantasies under the title of “The Bowmen” is Mr. Machen’s literary case. The scandalous success of that extraordinarily trivial story is a fine companion piece to the succès de fiasco of his earlier work.1
It comes an ironic climax to his years of achievement, a fool’s motley granted at last to a poet with claims to the laureate’s crown. At any rate, Mr. Machen is in the palace of the king.
If that statement be not literally true it is no fault of the British Press.
“The Bowmen” appeared in The Evening News of September 29, 1914. It is a tale brilliantly conceived of a soldier who, in the hellish furnace of the retreat from Mons, invoked the name of England’s patron saint.
“He heard, or seemed to hear, thousands shouting: ‘St. George! St. George!’ … And as the soldier heard these voices he saw before him, beyond the trench, a long line of shapes, with a shining about them. They looked like men who drew the bow, and, with another shout, their crowd of arrows flew singing and tingling through the air towards the German hosts.”
Certainly no other story so slight has ever received such acclaim. The history of “the angels of Mons” legend is a phenomenal example of the will to credulity which sometimes obsesses a materialistic and stupid people.2
Why parish magazines should reprint and sell out this story; why priests should insist that, against the author’s denial, “the main ‘facts’ of ‘The Bowmen’ must be true,” why the editor of the Occult Review should be interested and the Daily Chronicle intrigued—these are questions almost too silly to be answered.
So far Mr. Machen is not the perpetrator of a hoax, but a fiction writer as honest as a journalist can be.
When one has written “The House of Souls” and “The Hill of Dreams,” it can matter very little what anyone—even if he have the soul of all England—thinks about The Bowmen.”
Besides these two extraordinary books, Mr. Machen has published his theory of literature in “Hieroglyphics.”3
He is also the author of “The Chronicle of Clemendy” and “Dr. Stiggins,” neither of which are in print.4
Outside of the fact that Mr. Machen was born in 1863 I know nothing of his life. He is mentioned by Holbrook Jackson in his work on the wonderful Nineties, during which two of his books were illustrated by S. S. Sime, and he lived in 1905 at 4, Verulam-buildings, Gray’s Inn, W.C.5
From internal evidence one judges that Mr. Machen is an “evening journalist.” He is certainly a Catholic; hates the puritanism of England as only Chesterton hates it, and loves Rabelais, partly, at least, because he believes that “de vin, divin on devient.” “The House of Souls” (including “A Fragment of Life,” “The Great God Pan,” “The Three Imposters,” and other stories)6 and—
“The Hill of Dreams” was originally issued in this country by Dana Estes and Co. In 1914 the publisher’s stock of these works was exhausted by a number of Harvard men, who had come (heaven knows how!) across the books. Both will presently be reissued by a New York firm.7
Obviously it is possible by analysis and comparison to deprecate the astonishing power of Mr. Machen’s work.
You may say that “The Great God Pan” is merely the story of an operation on the brain resulting in the spiritual degradation of the victim and the perversion of her descendants. You may put beside it “Dr. Jekyll and Mister Hyde.” You may compare “The Three Imposters” to “The Dynamiters” and “The Red Hand,” to the best of Conan Doyle, though, I warn you, in each case you are putting a masterpiece (which is Machen’s) beside a very clever bit of writing.
You may say that “The Hill of Dreams” is the story of a modern Chatterton,8 with liberal help from the dullest parts of “The Picture of Dorian Gray.”
You will still have to explain why one phrase from the story of the Sixtystone can people the night with unholy visions, and why reading the story of Lucian Taylor should be, despite the meanness and meagerness of its substance, one of the most desolate and appalling experiences in literature.
. . . . It is as one who stands for the freedom and the purity of our dreams that Mr. Machen is precious. The editors of the New Republic, I fancy, would hardly know what to make of his world—Mr. Machen is so dreadfully unscientific, so uneconomic, so unaffected by the social conscience.9 His books are written for souls a little lonely on this threshing floor of mortality.
Unless you have one time felt strayed and brotherless in the world of marketing and following the plough, unless one time there has come to you, above the city’s odours and the stench of living, some fragrance, be it of sin or sanctity, you have no need and no understanding of this other world.
If you have not, in some way, looked for the jar marked Faunus and been glad, you will not live with Lucian Taylor in the hill of dreams.
Of that book “The Hill of Dreams” nothing can truly be said, not because the book is incomprehensible, but because it is so fine. The vulgarity of retelling is inconceivable in this case. Adolescence in the courts of Avallanius and the story of a struggle for life against the invisible powers of death—these are the substances of high fantasy and design.
With criticism they have nothing to do. If you can read in “Fort Comme la Mort”10 the immitigable tragedy of this life, you may in “The Hill of Dreams” find the tragedy of that other life which lies about us in a vague middle land between death and dreams.
1 Machen’s early work, particularly The Great God Pan, caused a stir in the late Victorian society of 1890s Britain. It was considered unduly morbid by some and others took offense to its unstated sexual undertones. After the Oscar Wilde scandal of 1895, the public became even less tolerant of such material, and unrelated figures, such as Machen, met a reversal of their previous success.
2 It should be remembered that the United States did not enter into the Great War for another 16 months on April 6, 1917.
3 Hieroglyphics, Machen’s major treatise on the art of literature, was first published in 1902. It did not see its first American printing until 1923, the height of his popularity in the States.
4 The Chronicle of Clemendy (1888) is an early work which takes the form of a pastiche on medieval romanticism. Dr. Stiggins (1906) is a harsh satire on Low Church and Nonconformist Christianity in Britain. Is is regarded by most observers to be among Machen’s least successful works. At the time of this article, both books were out-of-print, but each received editions on both sides of the Atlantic in 1923 and 1925 respectively.
5 Holbrook Jackson (1874-1948) published The Eighteen Nineties in 1913. The mention of Machen in the book is very brief indeed. Biographical information on Machen was practically nil in the United States at this time with the first serious survey on him appearing as Arthur Machen: A Novelist of Ecstasy and Sin by Vincent Starrett in 1918. Furthermore, Machen’s first volume of memoirs would not be published until 1922. Sidney Sime (1865-1941), most famous for his illustrations of Lord Dunsany’s work, contributed the frontispieces to Machen’s House of Souls (1906) and Hill of Dreams (1907).
6 The other stories in House of Souls being “The White People” and “The Red Hand.” The book was published in America by Dana Estes and Co, the same company mentioned later in regards to Hill of Dreams.
7 Possibly, this refers to the reprints by Albert and Charles Boni Co., which hit the market in 1915, or the Frank Shay issues in 1917. Both books would be reissued again as a part of the Alfred K. Knopf series of the 1920s.
8 Thomas Chatterton (1752-1770), a child prodigy, published material under a false persona. This is not quite an apt analogy as Machen published Hill of Dreams under his own name, though most interpret the protagonist Lucian Taylor as a thinly veiled version of his creator.
9 Skeptical of liberalism and socialism, Machen’s concerns did not cross over to the liberal-progressive politics of the American magazine.
10 Fort Comme la Mort (1889) is a novel by Guy De Maupassant (1850-1893) focuses on tragedy in the life of a painter in the Naturalist style. On the other hand, Machen’s novel is concerned with the spiritual journey of its character, a tragic young writer.