Zangwill’s The Master on Art

A passage about art and artists from the preface to Israel Zangwill’s Künstlerroman The Master.

The front cover of Hennepin County Library's first edition copy of Zangwill's The Master
The front cover of Hennepin County Library’s first edition copy of Zangwill’s The Master

Published in 1895, Israel Zangwill’s The Master is a Künstlerroman about a teenage boy in Nova Scotia who overcomes a difficult childhood and extreme poverty to become a great painter. The Master also features illustrations by George Wylie Hutchinson, a frequent Zangwill collaborator whose life story informed the writing of the novel.

I haven’t gotten that far into it yet so I don’t know if it’s any good (it was a bestseller when it first came out). But what I do know is that this passage from the proem (preface) is an overwrought but fabulous and cutting meditation on art and artists that ends with an image that is SF&F adjacent and thus worth noting here:

“And amid these homely emotions of yeomen, amid the crude pieties or impieties of homespun souls, amid this sane hearty intercourse with realities or this torpor of sluggish spirits, was born ever and anon a gleam of fantasy, of imagination: bizarre, transfiguring, touching things with the glamour of dream. Blind instincts—blinder still in their loneliness—yearned towards light; beautiful emotions stirred in dumb souls, emotions that mayhap turned to morbid passion in the silence and solitude of the woods, where character may grow crabbed and gnarled, as well as sound and straight. For whereas to most of these human creatures, begirt by the glory of sea and forest, the miracles of sunrise and sunset were only the familiar indications of a celestial timepiece, and the starry heaven was but a leaky ceiling in their earthly habitation, there was here and there an eye keen to note the play of light and shade and color, the glint of wave and the sparkle of hoar-frost and the spume of tossing seas; the gracious fairness of cloud and bird and blossom, the magic of sunlit sails in the offing, the witchery of white winters, and all the changing wonder of the woods; a soul with scanty self-consciousness at best, yet haply absorbing Nature, to give it back one day as Art.

“Ah, but to see the world with other eyes than one’s fellows, yet express the vision of one’s race, its subconscious sense of beauty, is not all a covetable dower.

“The islands of Acadia are riddled with pits, where men have burrowed for Captain Kidd’s Treasure and found nothing but holes. The deeper they delved the deeper holes they found. Whoso with blood and tears would dig Art out of his soul may lavish his golden prime in pursuit of emptiness, or, striking treasure, find only fairy gold, so that when his eye is purged of the spell of morning, he sees his hand is full of withered leaves.” (3-4)

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