Reményi József – A Literary Portraitist – Essay by Bollobás Enikő
A scholar with a twin mission, József Reményi (1891-1956) worked in two directions and two languages, introducing American literature to Hungarians (in Hungarian) and Hungarian literature to Americans (in English). He was a true mediator of cultures, as we would put it today, explaining authors quite unknown at the time by the audiences he targeted. He was therefore justly described at the banquet honoring his twenty years of teaching at Western Reserve University of Cleveland as “a link of understanding between the peoples of America and Europe, a sort of liaison officer between the two cultures” (qtd. in Maciuszko 1956, p. 124). Probably even more accurate is the Brockhaus Encyclopedia’s description of Reményi as an “ambassador in America of European literature” (qtd. in Maciuszko 1956, p. 124), especially if we add that he was equally the ambassador of American literature in Hungary. Over one hundred and fifty articles published in Hungarian and American journals attest to his successful mapping of the two terrae incognitae—unknown, that is, by the respective audiences—which were later collected in three major books. Amerikai írók (American Writers, 1933) and Mai amerikai Dekameron (Contemporary American Decameron, 1935) were introductions of major American writers written from a European perspective, while the posthumously published Hungarian writers and literature: modern novelists, critics, and poets (1964) gave an overview of Hungarian literature informed, at least partly, by current American scholarship. Of this two-directional scholarly work, I will discuss his presentation of American literature to Hungarians in greater detail, giving just a summary overview of his Hungarian literary scholarship conducted for English readers.
Reményi’s double mission was rooted in his strong belief in what he called the universality of world literature. In his 1951 essay “The Meaning of World Literature,” he demands the inclusion of world literature in American university curricula. World literature, he claims, “safeguards against mere existence,” for it allows the particular to become universal, and reveals “the common denominator of human similarities and differences.” “World literature gives meaning to the vision of universality,” he continues; “[m]an without universal orientation is close to spiritual self-annihilation” (Remenyi 1951, p. 248). To this end, Reményi calls for a thorough knowledge not only of works by major European authors such as Dante, Cervantes, Shakespeare, Rabelais, Swift, Molière, Goethe, and Dostoyevsky, but also of works coming from more distant cultures, written in less widely translated languages. Among the latter, he cites Hungarian and Finnish folktales, Russian fables, Scandinavian, Polish, Romanian, Czech, Lithuanian, or Icelandic novels, and Chinese lyric poems (Remenyi 1951, pp. 249-250). These would belong to the class many of his colleagues called “minor languages” and “minor literatures,” terms which he not only disliked, as George J. Maciuszko emphasized in his obituary, but avoided on principle (Maciuszko 1956, p. 124). To demonstrate the meaning of world literature as well as its assumed universality, he later edited a collection of essays entitled World Literatures (1956), using the 1951 essay as its introduction. The book contains sixteen lectures delivered by diverse scholars at the University of Pittsburgh between 1949 and 1953 on not only single authors including Karel Čapek, Tu Fu, Goethe, Homer, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Robert Burns, Vincent Krėvė, but more general surveys on lesser-known literatures like Arabic, French, Hungarian, Norwegian, Polish, Romanian, Swedish, and Yugoslav.
It is in this 1951 essay that Reményi comes closest to a theoretical grounding for his work. He urges a more widespread appreciation of literature, arguing for “the possession of that knowledge [of the universal] which seems out of reach for the exclusively ‘practical’ man” (Remenyi 1951, p. 245). Not only does he give his definition of literature here—“Literature is a creatively expressed imaginative interpretation or recreation of life” (Remenyi 1951, p. 246)—but offers meticulous criteria for the “necessary postulates of literary criticism” as well. Somewhat unaffected by the then widely accepted tenets of New Criticism, he mentions among these postulates the detection of authorial intention, the recognition of artistic honesty or pretense, the discernment of the horizon of ability, and the judging of the uniqueness of personality (Remenyi 1951, p. 247). Some other postulates reveal a most progressive critic in terms of his theoretical predisposition; for example, he demands a consideration of the Zeitgeist when judging a work, as well as a comparative approach for the study of national literatures and forms of artistic expression that also “transcends individual, class and national frontiers” (Remenyi 1951, p. 247). Moreover, he takes a firm position on the mutability of the literary canon, asserting that there are no fixed canons applicable to literature. It is impossible in some cases to make an unequivocal statement. Neither an inductive or analytical, nor a dialectical or speculative approach seems of much help. After all, literary history is the history of changing rules and theories. (Remenyi 1951, p. 246)
Reményi began to import American literature to Hungarian readers at a time when even American scholars were unable to reach an agreement on the value of American literature. At one end of the spectrum, Frankly B. Snyder complains of the modest volume of “genuine” American literature, arguing that “[w]hoever engages in the fascinating study of American literature, will realize that a genuine American literature […] fills a relatively small amount of space on your library shelves” (Snyder 1927, p. 206) and denouncing it as parochial and provincial. “The most cursory examination of our literature shows a certain parochial quality, a provincialism,” he writes (Snyder 1927, p. 206). “A national consciousness,” he continues, “as it exists in France or England, has not yet come to its full stature in America” (Snyder 1927, p. 207). Finally, Snyder offers three summary sets of traits to distinguish American literature: “a certain parochial or provincial quality”; a “responsiveness to local conditions” coupled by an “absorbing interest in political and historical development”; and a scarcity of “its sheer merit as art” (Snyder 1927, p. 209).
At the other end of the spectrum, critics identified an upward momentum in the pursuits of scholars that reflected on the newly recognized merit of American literature. For example, in 1935, Robert E. Spiller observes a “feverish activity” on the part of American literary historians (Spiller 1935, p. 70), coupled by the introduction of new approaches and methods to the study of literature. While earlier, in the Cambridge History of American Literature of 1917-21, research focused on “fact-finding” and the derivation of American literature from English (Spiller 1935, p. 71), the 1930s are characterized by attempts to study American literature “in its own terms” (Spiller 1935, p. 72). Moreover, replacing the more widespread portraitures of individual authors, he observes a new critical focus on literary movements such as the romantic, naturalist, and the “Concorde and Cambridge renaissance,” and realistic movements (Spiller 1935, pp. 76, 79), as well as an emphasis on “the independence of mind” characterizing authors from Roger Williams to Emerson and Whitman (Spiller 1935, p. 78). Similarly, in a 1940 article Ernest E. Leisy identifies a “big bonanza of literary scholarship” (Leisy 1940, p. 115) in recognition of the non-derivative nature of American literature, which “is no longer considered a by-product of British letters” (Leisy 1940, p. 116), thereby contributing to “a sense of national dignity” (Leisy 1940, p. 116). Leisy demands more diverse activity in literary scholarship, welcoming works of “synthesis” (Leisy 1940, p. 118), as well as “bibliographies” and “definitive biographies” of “major writers” (Leisy 1940, pp. 119, 120). In the same year, Louis B. Wright articulates the need for a new history of American literature to replace The Cambridge History of American Literature (1917-21), which he faults for its “disparate treatment of disconnected topics” (Wright 1940, p. 283). “[A] new comprehensive history and a fresh interpretation of American literature” is needed (Wright 1940, p. 283), he claims, one that would apply, moreover, “the same critical standards to research in American literature that we have grown to expect in English literature and in other older fields of investigation” (Wright 1940, p. 287). This new comprehensive history came soon after, with the three-volume The literary History of the United States (1948) edited by Robert E. Spiller, indeed making The Cambridge History of American Literature outdated. Spiller’s Literary History managed to bring together an impressive list of outstanding contributors, among them, R. P. Blackmur, Henry Steele Commager, Malcolm Cowley, Joseph Wood Crutch, Harry Levin, F. O. Matthiessen, H. L. Mencken, Carl Sandburg, Henry Nash Smith, Carl Van Doren, and Morton Zabel.
It was from this scholarly-critical climate in the US that Reményi sent his articles to the leading Hungarian journals of the time from Nyugat (West) to Erdélyi Helikon (Transylvanian Helicon). These were predominantly individual portraits of classical and contemporary American poets, prose writers, and dramatists who were little known at the time in Hungary. Seventeen of the portraits were then arranged in loose chronological order in the collection of essays to be entitled Amerikai írók (American Writers), published in six editions in the 1930s. The unprecedented popularity of the collection can be attributed to several factors, among them Reményi’s easily understandable essayistic style, his frequent reliance on assumed psychological factors, and his accessible presentation of the cultural-textual imprint of a culture that held an irresistible attraction for many Hungarians, at a time when emigration to the US had come to a standstill, with the three American quota laws of 1921, 1924, and 1929, in force until 1965, allowing a maximum of 473 Hungarians per year to be admitted to the US.
Reményi conformed to the widespread practices of literary criticism of the 1910s and 1920s in the sense that he followed the “major authors” approach reigning in both Hungary and the United States, as illuminated by Wright’s complaint quoted earlier, who wrote about the “disparate treatment of disconnected topics” in contemporary criticism (Wright 1940, p. 283). Reményi’s portraits are indeed disconnected from each other, and as such fail to give out a larger picture of common literary climates and trends; in other words, no common literary era or movement, no literary history is drawn up behind the isolated treatments of individual authors. He often makes subjective observations in a lyrical language that conveys very little actual information about a particular author or work. This is what he writes about Emerson, for example, “Rarely did the merry moon, sister of silence, smile in his heart; but when he recommended to his fellow humans to not ever cease to go after the stars, he expressed his conviction that after all hope is one’s finest host in the home of destiny.” Moreover, in each portrait the gives prominent place to biography, personal details, and psychological assumptions, often skipping actual discussions of texts.
I see as one of the true merits of Reményi’s approach the comparative perspective he often gives, allowing for the treatment of the sensibilities and styles of American authors in the same context as those of Europe, especially Hungary. It is in this spirit that he places the poet essayist Emerson in the company of Sainte Beuve and the Hungarian essayist and poet Pál Gyulai (19), compares Longfellow to Heine (29), Hawthorne to Stendhal and Dostoyevsky (40, 41), Frank Norris to Zola (126) and the Hungarian fiction writer Ferenc Móra (131), O’Neill to the Hungarian poet Endre Ady (169), thereby putting into practice his strongly avowed democratic principle of world literature in which no languages or literatures are minor.
The canon that Reményi put together is quite remarkable as well, for only a few of the authors discussed have since fallen through the cracks of time; most of his assessments (if we disregard the subjective observations) are acceptable today too, whether of authors or works. Wherever his choice was unorthodox, he gave sufficient justification; yet over 80% of his discussions seem valid and relevant, his placements enduring. However, his canon was far from rigid; instead, he granted himself, in the spirit of the 1951 essay, quoted earlier, freedom to follow the “changing rules and theories” (Remenyi 1951, p. 246). In this spirit, he felt free to add to or subtract from his earlier lists. For example, he included just a handful of nineteenth century poets in Amerikai írók, Longfellow, Poe, Whitman, and Hearn; but then in a critical essay published in 1938, he listed Emily Dickinson in the company of Poe and Hawthorne as the three singularly outstanding authors in terms of imagination and artistic form (Reményi 1938, p. 512). In the same essay he also admits that he could never really appreciate Hemingway, an author to whom he devoted a long and enthusiastic chapter earlier, for his sentimentality and cynicism (Reményi 1938, p. 509), and gives high appreciation to Edna St. Vincent Millay, Howard Mumford Jones, and Archibald MacLeish, authors not discussed in his 1930s survey.
The first chapter of Amerikai írók is devoted to James Fenimore Cooper, whose writing style, he claims, might be considered passé, yet his books remain readable and popular, especially among young readers. Reményi praises the ingenuity of character-formation of the novels, as well as the powerful descriptions of nature, oceans in particular, which together contributed to the new fictional genre he created out of American frontier materials.
He describes Emerson as an “honest thinker who strove towards universality,” and who was, above all, a Yankee in embracing experience and everyday wonders, seeing in every soul the imprint of divine essence. Throughout his life Emerson remained a preacher, a sermonizer, Reményi claims, who never stopped educating and edifying his readers. As one who strongly believed in the economy of words, “his sentences are more important than his chapters, his words more important than his sentences.” Yet, Reményi continues, in none of his poems could he “liberate himself from the sound-damping discipline of reason.”
Reményi is willing to praise authors who were not considered current or modern by contemporary opinion. For example, in the Longfellow chapter he gives a rather enthusiastic portrait of the poet, claiming that his “human conscience, the rhythm of spiritual immaculacy” superseded his “style conscience,” praising him as a virtuoso versifier, who excelled as an epic poet. Reményi names the finest of Longfellow’s ballads—“The Song of Hiawatha,” “The Courtship of Miles Standish,” and The New England Tragedies—as representing a spirit that counters America’s “spiritual provinciality.”
It is probably Hawthorne who receives the highest praise from Reményi, in a chapter that abounds in both succinct observations and lyrical raptures. Calling Hawthorne the “most artistic novelist of America” and one without predecessors, the critic gives an enthusiastic list of literary merits, from realistic observations and romantic predispositions to the survival of Puritanism, “the toothache of the soul,” in the depiction of environment, and the “central nervous system of the secret.” Going backwards from text to author, Reményi gives a vivid psychological portrait of Hawthorne which he deduced from the novels; accordingly, the author of The Scarlet Letter was a pathologically sensitive man with a penchant for melancholy and depression, who, as Reményi continues, transcribed the irrational fancy of his own soul into the irrational atmosphere of gloom and horror of his novels, and was more interested in midnight than sunrise. Yet the critic is precise in explaining the novelty of The Scarlet Letter, emphasizing the masterly depiction of Hester’s transition from a fallen sinner to a woman of virtue redeemed by suffering. It is Hawthorne’s artistic sense of responsibility, Reményi points out, that allowed intuition to supersede his Puritan conviction and the optimism of the creative spirit to conquer the false justice of hypocrisy.
Presenting Poe as an author of threefold interest, Reményi describes the critic who was a pioneer in valorizing aesthetic conscience, the writer of short stories who was the “logical and suggestive expert of grotesque, arabesque and gruesome elements,” and the poet who was the “genius of word conjured into music.” This is a somewhat repetitive chapter, underlining again and again the music of words, the harmony of verbal music in Poe’s poems, coupled by an equally recurrent insistence on the poet’s calculating rationality when it comes to poetic effect. Once again, life and work become indivisible for Reményi: the lingering melancholy and sadness he identifies in Poe’s eyes seem to provoke as well as explain his attraction to death and to transient beauty in the poems.
Reményi’s evaluation of Mark Twain’s works, in one of the longest and most detailed chapters of the volume, proves to be truly enduring: he writes with great enthusiasm about The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, as well as a posthumously published work of short fiction, The Mysterious Stranger. These are the three works with which Reményi chooses to demonstrate Twain’s most significant traits: a wealth of imagination, a vein of profane satire, masterly creation of artistic unity and internal order, as well as a knowledge of evil, all of which Reményi values over Twain’s much-celebrated humor. Lavish praise goes to The Mysterious Stranger, Twain’s “spiritual Odyssey,” reaching the heights of human confrontation with the senselessness of suffering and the general meaninglessness of life.
Reményi praises Whitman as an original poet, “American democracy’s greatest poetic gift to mankind,” identifying his particular Americanism as giving voice to mid-century democratic feelings with an exultant optimism that is, the critic admits, foreign to him. While appreciating Whitman’s celebration of American democracy, Reményi seems to disregard the poet’s painful spiritual journey and his close knowledge of the tragic in life. Surprisingly, Reményi does not discuss Whitman’s innovative versification either, giving only a passing mention to his free verse, but no textual examples or analyses are offered.
The European perspective of Reményi’s surveys is probably the most explicit in the chapter on Lafcadio Hearn, in whose case it is his biographical and poetic escape that serves as central focus. Hearn is presented as someone who was not attracted by either the Niagara Falls or the skyscrapers of New York, leaving behind both when he followed his desire for the “will-o’-the-whisp of faraway” and his “nostalgic longing for irrational beauties,” and settled in Japan. Always charmed by the music of the English language, he became the poet who was “just about kissing words when he wrote them down or uttered them.”
Reményi devotes shorter chapters to the realist and naturalist writers, Bret Harte, Theodore Dreiser, Upton Sinclair, Frank Norris, Jack London, and Sinclair Lewis, faulting them for their biased focus on frontier characters (Harte), their sentimentality (Dreiser), their simplistic thinking in types (Sinclair), their roughness of expression (Norris), their replacing of narration with creation (London), their inability to portray the American soul behind the stuffy air of American life (Lewis). At the same time, he manages even in such relatively short overviews to give enduring selections of works, “The Luck of Roaring Camp” by Harte, Sister Carrie and An American Tragedy by Dreiser, The Jungle by Sinclair, McTeague and the “wheat trilogy” by Norris, The Call of the Wild by London, and It Can’t Happen Here by Lewis.
High appreciation is given to Thornton Wilder, whom Reményi considers one of the most remarkable authors of “aesthetic significance.” Describing Wilder as one who rises above commotion through silence and above modernity through beauty, the critic celebrates the author’s tragic sensibility and his sense of displacement in contemporary America. The Bridge of San Louis Rey and The Woman of Andros are discussed in detail, praised for their clarity of language, their metaphysical and moral perspective, and their attraction to the irrational domain.
The two chapters closing the book are devoted to two dramatists, Eugene O’Neill and Elmer Rice. Named as the first American playwright of true dramatic magnitude, O’Neill receives much praise for his presentation of social problems, his following the great wrestling tradition of literature, and his Catholic privileging of free will over Calvinist determinism. In probably the longest chapter of the book, Reményi surveys several dramas, including Emperor Jones, A Hairy Ape, Days Without End, Marco’s Millions, Desire under the Elms, and Mourning Becomes Electra, identifying all of them as spiritual biographies written by a sensitive soul who belongs as much to the universe as to America, for he lives in “the community of human suffering.” Presenting Elmer Rice in sharp contrast to O’Neill, Reményi emphasizes that Rice is one of those writers who “take a stand” when staging the plight of the “little man” in his plays. Describing Rice as “angry and satirical,” the critic identifies the voice of propagandistic editorials of socialist or communist papers in The Adding Machine and Street Scene, plays in which, he adds, characters are flat, plain types, not individuals.
Hungarian readers could receive an accurate picture of American authors from Amerikai írók. One must agree with the contemporary critic Aladár Schöpflin, who praises Reményi’s criteria for selection: true artistic merit and the possession of some specific traits of Americanness (Schöpflin 1938, p. 230). Among the writers who exhibit such distinctive American traits Schöpflin includes Walt Whitman as the forthright voice of American democracy, Sinclair Lewis as the satiric author of democracy, Lafcadio Hearn and Thornton Wilder as breaking free from America’s suffocating intellectual atmosphere either into exoticism or l’art pour l’art, and Upton Sinclair and Elmer Rice as embracing socialist tenets. Reményi’s most commendable quality, according to Schöpflin, is his pervasive knowledge of, yet independence from, the evaluations of American literary criticism coupled with his steadfast European mentality, his “assessments based on the measures of the European literary spirit.”
Reményi’s other book on American literature was his pioneering collection of translated short stories entitled Mai amerikai Dekameron (Contemporary American Decameron), with a substantive introduction to contemporary American literature and short author portraits preceding each story. Published in 1935 in Nyugat, in a series comprising books that each present ten short stories from various literatures, Reményi’s landmark edition brings together translations of short fiction by Sherwood Anderson, James Branch Cabell, Willa Cather, John Dos Passos, William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ellen Glasgow, Ernest Hemingway, Robert Nathan, and Evelyn Scott. This is indeed an impressive list, collecting works by the authors of American modernist prose still considered the most significant in the 21st century. As opposed to his earlier book, Amerikai írók, here Reményi cast his net a little wider, to select three women authors (Cather, Glasgow, and Scott), while he included only two authors, Cabell and Nathan, whose names have dropped out of the literary canon. Since virtually all the included pieces were written or published in the 1920s and 1930s, the collection bore the imprint of immediacy in the sense that the best contemporary short stories found their way to the Hungarian reader without delay. As a Nyugat publication, the volume relied on translations by the journal’s leading contributors, among them Dezső Kosztolányi, Antal Szerb, László Cs. Szabó, and Andor Németh, who were exceptional poets, prose writers, and essayists in their own right.
Again, Reményi speaks from a European standpoint when he expounds a strong thesis in his general introduction, claiming that America’s literature has reached a level of maturity and independence worthy of being more widely translated in Europe. No longer an object of European condescension, he claims, America as a producer of culture, has “ceased to be a secondary intellectual colony.” He sees poetry as the first genre to reach a level of artistic excellence, in the 19th century, with Poe, Whitman, and Dickinson in every way the equals of their European counterparts. Fiction and drama followed only in the first decades of the 20th century, with authors resisting the “taste of the masses sitting on the merry-go-round of optimism.” As such, the best writers were those who “recognized the defects of democracy” and, with a subversive gesture, confronted Americans with their surprising “lack of deep and passionate joy in American life.” Here he identifies Puritanism as a force still shaping literature, whether as a deeply buried point of orientation or a force to be wrestled with, in a cultural climate characterized by a peculiar mixture of exceptionalism, materialism, and sentimentality. Expatriate writers such as Gertrude Stein and Henry James made an especially substantial contribution to the transformation of American prose, he insists, for in their works “the American provincial aspect was suppressed and came to be replaced by a rather universal aspect.” The best American writers exhibit traits of freshness, imagination, perception, and the conviction that “they are still allowed to register commonplaces.”  At the same time, Reményi faults American authors who “over-emphasize thematics and ideas at the expense of artistry.” Such include, for example, African American writers, he claims, whose work is informed by one of two sociological attitudes, either the expression of “racial self-esteem” or of “class consciousness,” with the former striving to use literature to convey the “racial soul” and the latter conducting class struggle with the help of literature. While Reményi’s final assessment of the new standards of American literature is clearly positive, he demands more originality and synthesis from the prose writers.
Rarely exceeding a page and a half in length, the individual introductions are informative, to the point, and vivid. Moreover, they often run counter to the assessments of then current criticism. To single out only a few of these notes, I could cite the most enthusiastic lead-in to Sherwood Anderson’s “Death in the Woods,” praising the author for his depiction of bleakness and pathos, as well as of spiritual anarchy and small-town existence. The portrait of Willa Cather, introducing her “Paul’s Case: A Study in Temperament” as translated by László Cs. Szabó, is similarly positive, awarding high praise to a prose writer who excels in her precision as a realist, her interpretation as an analyst, and her passion as a romantic. F. Scott Fitzgerald also receives an enthusiastic portrait introducing “The Lees of Happiness” as translated by Andor Németh, discussing Fitzgerald’s expressive language, humor, romantic spirit, and objectivity. Reményi is more restrained when writing about some of the most widely read authors of the time. In the portrait serving to illuminate “July” in the translation of Antal Szerb, John Dos Passos is described as one aiming at the collective presentation of American culture and civilization, one who paints types, not individuals; crowds and not small groups. He is interested in the nerve and the physical experience, not the soul and inner reality. He includes more memories than imagination in his novels, more facts than conjectures; more the condensation of experience than synthesis independent of experience.
William Faulkner’s portrait introducing “That Evening Sun” translated by Dezső Kosztolányi, is similarly low-key when it comes to describing The Sound and the Fury, in which the critic only mentions the representation of the “imbecile.” In disagreement with critics calling Faulkner the American Dostoyevsky, Reményi insists that the American writer always stops short of metaphysics when describing the “danse macabre of human derangement and helplessness.” Nor does Reményi agree with the generally positive reception Hemingway received in Hungary. In the introduction to the translation of “Indian Camp,” he faults the author for his “artistically suggested rawness” and his tastelessness unfettered by artistic discipline, yet praises the dramatic force of his condensed dialogues and his photographic precision.
Mai amerikai Dekameron was a major publishing success in Hungary, with diverse critics singing Reményi’s praise for giving convincing evidence for the maturity of American literature. György Bálint’s enthusiastic yet argumentative review stands out among these appraisals, seeing the significance of Reményi’s collection in its implicit demonstration that American literature is no longer the intellectual colony of English, or one ranking second after English poetry, prose, or drama (Bálint 1935, p. 326). While “the 19th century produced only two authors of European weight and significance, Hawthorne and Poe,” Bálint continues, the American authors of the 1930s are the equals of their European contemporaries in every sense (Bálint 1935, p. 326). At the same time, in agreement with contemporary Hungarian evaluations and contradicting his own previous claim, Bálint disputes Reményi’s stand that there exists a specifically American intellectual climate, insisting instead on an “Anglo-Saxon spirit” (Bálint 1935, p. 327), which encompasses not only the British and the Irish but also the American creative mentalities and ethos (Bálint 1935, p. 327). Bálint also expresses his disagreement with Reményi’s evaluations, faulting him in particular for “under-valuing” the realists (Dreiser, Lewis, Sinclair) and including such “talented but not particularly deep” writers as Cabell, Fitzgerald, Glasgow, and Nathan (Bálint 1935, p. 327). Bálint holds Sherwood Anderson in great regard for approaching the heights of Tolstoy, and depicting certain thematic links contributing to the specific American traits in the selected stories. Among these thematic links Bálint lists the “Negro topic,” the matter-of-fact depiction of death, and the foregrounding of the problems of children and adolescents.
Both Amerikai írók and Mai amerikai Dekameron are groundbreaking works, performing the pioneering cultural mission of familiarizing the Hungarian reader with some major authors of America. Reményi capitalized on the knowledge he had accumulated as a professor of comparative literature in Cleveland when he taught a literary canon that had crystallized for him over twenty years. He was very much aware of who he was writing for, knowing very well that Hungarian readers possessed only scattered pieces of information on America’s authors, just dots that he needed to connect for them. Therefore, writing from a Hungarian perspective, he put together a personal canon of major authors, selected to a degree according to Hungarian literary taste, and always contextualized with reference to European, and in particular Hungarian, literature.
His groundbreaking introduction of Hungarian literature for American readers, Hungarian Writers and Literature: Modern Novelists, Critics, and Poets, beautifully complements his first mission, if only posthumously. A rich compendium of presentations of just about all the 19th and 20th century Hungarian writers, poets, and critics or essayists considered canonical at the time, it was, as editor August J. Molnár observes, “the first full-length book on the subject since 1906” (Molnár 1964, p. vii). Moreover, it was an unparalleled scholarly achievement in two countries, for not only was there no up-to-date survey of Hungarian literature available in English at the time, but no literary history or portraiture existed in Hungarian either, one written in a country suffering from Stalinism and totalitarianism permeating all niches of culture. Here the portraits are framed by historical essays focusing on various topics. The general overview entitled “A survey of Hungarian literature” is followed by a more detailed examination, written in 1956, of the preceding thirty years, “Hungarian literature during three decades, 1925-1955.” Three more precisely focused overviews stand at the end of the volume, after the two large sections filled with individual portraits of 19th and 20th century authors: “Hungarian humor,” “Hungarian writers and the tragic sense,” and “Modern Hungarian literature in English translation.”
Reményi followed the highest American critical standards of the era. Written for various US scholarly journals over three decades, the chapters of this voluminous book of over five hundred large pages, packed with small(ish) letters set single spaced, are complete individual studies of artistic trajectories, reflecting on developments, affinities, influences, and canonical placements. The presentations are detailed, supported by facts, dates, and titles (always translated), and are peppered with textual examples given in impeccable English. The work-to-author psychologizing impulse, rendered obsolete by this time in the US by New Criticism’s reigning authority, was totally eliminated from the portraits, which are now all grounded in Hungarian history, properly explained for the American reader. The comparative dimension, meanwhile, is given more space: authors and works, genres and modes of writing, sensibilities and techniques are all presented in such a way that comparable examples from world literature are brought in. Finally, this major publication is rounded off with a substantial bibliography guiding the student of Hungarian literature and history towards further readings.
Reményi’s three collections have remained readable and even vivid texts over the years. Although some of the pieces were first published a hundred years ago, and the latest some seventy years ago, most of Reményi’s observations (disregarding the subjective lyrical descriptions and psychological analyses) and canon placements seem accurate, substantiated, and acceptable. While he proves to be a more reliable guide when presenting Hungarian literature to American readers, his portraits of American authors also carry the freshness of new perceptions, continuing to offer a safe navigation on the seas of literature and criticism—in addition, of course, to being fascinating historical works of literary scholarship.