James Gibbons Huneker: the critic who led American into a new century of art

December 14, 2021 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: journalism, writers, writing.

Rarely, if ever, has an art, music, and theater critic held such sway over American public opinion as did James Gibbons Huneker at the beginning of the 20th century.  Huneker accomplished this feat using a depth of knowledge about his subjects and a writing style that would-be scribblers such as H.L. Mencken sought to emulate.

Born in 1857 in Philadelphia, Huneker grew up with the duel of ambitions of being a concert pianist and a novelist. He loved music, and he loved writing. As a young man he found himself in law school at the behest of his parents and realized that the law would not satisfy any of his dreams. In 1878, he abandoned law school and with his pregnant girlfriend, later his wife, set out for Paris. There, he studied piano and soaked up as much of the music, artistic, and literary culture that that magic city had to offer.

Huneker returned to Philadelphia after a year and managed to scrape out a living teaching piano. But Philadelphia was too small a stage for his ambitions, and he longed to move to New York where the biggest opportunities could be found. He made that move in 1886 and never looked back.

There, too, was a shortage of money, but he managed to give lessons and begin his studies of Liszt, Chopin, and Brahms, composers that became his idols. He also began writing about music, and his analysis of those composers and others came to be highly regarded.

His own dream of a music career as a concert pianist faded as his star as a critic ascended. During the 1890s, his freelance work generated a livable income, and he expanded beyond music to include arts and literature. He was a prolific reader and thus became a sought-after book reviewer.

In 1900 he joined the staff of the New York Sun as its music critic and later as its arts critic, and that position expanded his audience considerable. In addition, he regularly — and then prolifically — published articles of mainstream and avant-garde magazine.

Huneker took annual trips to Europe to survey the arts scene there, but he was acutely American and supported and promoted many American artists and writers.

His writing style could be both extravagant and elegant.

At a time when the American public seemed to turn inward and to judge new artists and writers by what had been done previously, Huneker wrote:

“Let us try to shift the focus when a new man comes into our ken. Let us study each man according to his temperament and not ask ourselves whether he chimes in with other men’s music. The giving of marks in schoolmaster’s fashion should have become obsolete centuries ago. To miss modern art is to miss all the thrill and excitement our present life holds.”

Huneker’s personality matched his expansiveness as a writer and critic. He lived flamboyantly, drank enormous amounts of alcohol, and was never at a loss for stimulating conversation, especially with ribald stories of his own exploits.

H.L. Mencken, who as a young journalist admired him from afar and later became a close friend, called his conversation  “a really amazing compound of scandalous anecdotes, shrewd judgments, and devastating witticisms.”

By the end of World War I, Huneker’s vision of the arts had gone out of style, and his audience diminished considerably. He died of pneumonia after a short illness in New York City in 1921.

One of his more famous quotes is one that might be applied to his own life:

He dares to be a fool, and that is the first step in the direction of wisdom.

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