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Not long ago, Mr. Walter S. Hinchman, who had been teaching English at Groton School for five years, called my attention to the need of a book which should give in succinct but comprehensive form the lives of the great English authors. Both for the student, who is required to show his real knowledge of these authors in examination, and for the general reader, who wishes to come at the heart of their work with as little hampering as possible from books about books, the main object should be first-hand acquaintance with good literature. But this first-hand acquaintance is too often delayed, clouded, endangered, by the preliminary courses in literary history, with their third-hand comments on æsthetical and critical questions, and their efforts, by phrases and formulas, often hopelessly mixed in the reader's memory, to impress literary values on minds that have not yet encountered literature. Some sort of preparation is needed; no one doubts that; but the preparation should be direct, inciting, practical. To prepare the student or the general reader for the various works which he is to undertake, to give him a perspective of them, and to rouse his interest in the men who wrote them, as well as to save actual time for this first-hand reading of them, he needs, not barren formulas and catchwords about æsthetic values, but a series of biographies of the great writers, shorn of all literary criticism save that which serves to characterize the writers and give them their due places. These biographies must
present the author as he lived, note his surroundings, and give the pertinent facts of his life. Short transitional chapters should supply the connections of group with group, and create the proper impression of continuity in the course of English literature. A brief bibliography, a chronological table, and a literary map are obvious adjuncts to the plan.
So much for the general purpose of this volume as Mr. Hinchman conceived it. As for details of execution, to include in one volume the Great Writers of English Literature, one must exercise a choice that will not always go unchallenged. Fielding, greatest of our novelists, will be noted at once as an omission; but Fielding concerns the student less than many an inferior writer, and to make genius and literary prominence the sole test would have drawn in Ben Jonson, Marlowe, Herrick, and others, who would have stretched the volume to an impossible bulk. On the other hand, Ralegh, included as a typical Elizabethan, would yield to the superior literary claims of many who are not to be found in the list. The selection is intended to be representative.
Mr. Hinchman's ideas, derived from actual experience in preparatory English work, seemed sound; and it was determined that they should be embodied in the present book. He is responsible not only for the whole plan and purpose, but for most of the actual work. My own contributions are the lives of Chaucer, Spenser, Bacon, Shakespeare, Dryden, Johnson, Tennyson, Thackeray, and Matthew Arnold.
FRANCIS B. GUMMERE. HAVERFORD, January, 1908.