A Book of Prefaces
by H. L. Mencken
1  2  3  4     Next Part
Home - Random Browse






Published September, 1917 Second edition, 1918 Third edition, August, 1920 Reprinted, January, 1922

Set up, electrotyped and printed by Vail-Ballou Co., Binghamton, N. Y. Paper (Warren's) furnished by Henry Lindenmeyr & Sons, New York, N. Y. Bound by the Plimpton Press, Norwood, Mass.




New York: Alfred A Knopf


This fourth printing of "A Book of Prefaces" offers me temptation, as the third did, to revise the whole book, and particularly the chapters on Conrad, Dreiser and Huneker, all of whom have printed important new books since the text was completed. In addition, Huneker has died. But the changes that I'd make, after all, would be very slight, and so it seems better not to make them at all. From Conrad have come "The Arrow of Gold" and "The Rescue," not to mention a large number of sumptuous reprints of old magazine articles, evidently put between covers for the sole purpose of entertaining collectors. From Dreiser have come "Free," "Twelve Men," "Hey, Rub-a-Dub-Dub" and some chapters of autobiography. From Huneker, before and after his death, have come "Unicorns," "Bedouins," "Steeple-Jack," "Painted Veils" and "Variations." But not one of these books materially modifies the position of its author. "The Arrow of Gold," I suppose, has puzzled a good many of Conrad's admirers, but certainly "The Rescue" has offered ample proof that his old powers are not diminished. The Dreiser books, like their predecessors that I discuss here, reveal the curious unevenness of the author. Parts of "Free" are hollow and irritating, and nearly all of "Hey, Rub-a-Dub-Dub" is feeble, but in "Twelve Men" there are some chapters that rank with the very best of "The Titan" and "Jennie Gerhardt." The place of Dreiser in our literature is frequently challenged, and often violently, but never successfully. As the years pass his solid dignity as an artist becomes more and more evident. Huneker's last five works changed his position very little. "Bedouins," "Unicorns" and "Variations" belong mainly to his journalism, but into "Steeple-Jack," and above all into "Painted Veils" he put his genuine self. I have discussed all of these books in other places, and paid my small tribute to the man himself, a light burning brightly through a dark night, and snuffed out only at the dawn.

I should add that the prices of Conrad first editions given on page 56 have been greatly exceeded during the past year or two. I should add also that the Comstockian imbecilities described in Chapter IV are still going on, and that the general trend of American legislation and jurisprudence is toward their indefinite continuance.

H. L. M. Baltimore, January 1, 1922.


I. Joseph Conrad 11

II. Theodore Dreiser 67

III. James Huneker 151

IV. Puritanism as a Literary Force 197

Index 285




Sec. 1

"Under all his stories there ebbs and flows a kind of tempered melancholy, a sense of seeking and not finding...." I take the words from a little book on Joseph Conrad by Wilson Follett, privately printed, and now, I believe, out of print.[1] They define both the mood of the stories as works of art and their burden and direction as criticisms of life. Like Dreiser, Conrad is forever fascinated by the "immense indifference of things," the tragic vanity of the blind groping that we call aspiration, the profound meaninglessness of life—fascinated, and left wondering. One looks in vain for an attempt at a solution of the riddle in the whole canon of his work. Dreiser, more than once, seems ready to take refuge behind an indeterminate sort of mysticism, even a facile supernaturalism, but Conrad, from first to last, faces squarely the massive and intolerable fact. His stories are not chronicles of men who conquer fate, nor of men who are unbent and undaunted by fate, but of men who are conquered and undone. Each protagonist is a new Prometheus, with a sardonic ignominy piled upon his helplessness. Each goes down a Greek route to defeat and disaster, leaving nothing behind him save an unanswered question. I can scarcely recall an exception. Kurtz, Lord Jim, Razumov, Nostromo, Captain Whalley, Yanko Goorall, Verloc, Heyst, Gaspar Ruiz, Almayer: one and all they are destroyed and made a mock of by the blind, incomprehensible forces that beset them.

Even in "Youth," "Typhoon," and "The Shadow Line," superficially stories of the indomitable, that same consuming melancholy, that same pressing sense of the irresistible and inexplicable, is always just beneath the surface. Captain Mac Whirr gets the Nan-Shan to port at last, but it is a victory that stands quite outside the man himself; he is no more than a marker in the unfathomable game; the elemental forces, fighting one another, almost disregard him; the view of him that we get is one of disdain, almost one of contempt. So, too, in "Youth." A tale of the spirit's triumph, of youth besting destiny? I do not see it so. To me its significance, like that of "The Shadow Line," is all subjective; it is an aging man's elegy upon the hope and high resolution that the years have blown away, a sentimental reminiscence of what the enigmatical gods have had their jest with, leaving only its gallant memory behind. The whole Conradean system sums itself up in the title of "Victory," an incomparable piece of irony. Imagine a better label for that tragic record of heroic and yet bootless effort, that matchless picture, in microcosm, of the relentlessly cruel revolutions in the macrocosm!

Mr. Follett, perhaps with too much critical facility, finds the cause of Conrad's unyielding pessimism in the circumstances of his own life—his double exile, first from Poland, and then from the sea. But this is surely stretching the facts to fit an hypothesis. Neither exile, it must be plain, was enforced, nor is either irrevocable. Conrad has been back to Poland, and he is free to return to the ships whenever the spirit moves him. I see no reason for looking in such directions for his view of the world, nor even in the direction of his nationality. We detect certain curious qualities in every Slav simply because he is more given than we are to revealing the qualities that are in all of us. Introspection and self-revelation are his habit; he carries the study of man and fate to a point that seems morbid to westerners; he is forever gabbling about what he finds in his own soul. But in the last analysis his verdicts are the immemorial and almost universal ones. Surely his resignationism is not a Slavic copyright; all human philosophies and religions seem doomed to come to it at last. Once it takes shape as the concept of Nirvana, the desire for nothingness, the will to not-will. Again, it is fatalism in this form or that—Mohammedanism, Agnosticism ... Calvinism! Yet again, it is the "Out, out, brief candle!" of Shakespeare, the "Eheu fugaces" of Horace, the "Vanitas vanitatum; omnia vanitas!" of the Preacher. Or, to make an end, it is millenarianism, the theory that the world is going to blow up tomorrow, or the day after, or two weeks hence, and that all sweating and striving are thus useless. Search where you will, near or far, in ancient or modern times, and you will never find a first-rate race or an enlightened age, in its moments of highest reflection, that ever gave more than a passing bow to optimism. Even Christianity, starting out as "glad tidings," has had to take on protective coloration to survive, and today its chief professors moan and blubber like Johann in Herod's rain-barrel. The sanctified are few and far between. The vast majority of us must suffer in hell, just as we suffer on earth. The divine grace, so omnipotent to save, is withheld from us. Why? There, alas, is your insoluble mystery, your riddle of the universe!...

This conviction that human life is a seeking without a finding, that its purpose is impenetrable, that joy and sorrow are alike meaningless, you will see written largely in the work of most great creative artists. It is obviously the final message, if any message is genuinely to be found there, of the nine symphonies of Ludwig van Beethoven, or, at any rate, of the three which show any intellectual content at all. Mark Twain, superficially a humourist and hence an optimist, was haunted by it in secret, as Nietzsche was by the idea of eternal recurrence: it forced itself through his guard in "The Mysterious Stranger" and "What is Man?" In Shakespeare, as Shaw has demonstrated, it amounts to a veritable obsession. And what else is there in Balzac, Goethe, Swift, Moliere, Turgenev, Ibsen, Dostoyevsky, Romain Rolland, Anatole France? Or in the Zola of "L'Assomoir," "Germinal," "La Debacle," the whole Rougon-Macquart series? (The Zola of "Les Quatres Evangiles," and particularly of "Fecondite," turned meliorist and idealist, and became ludicrous.) Or in the Hauptmann of "Fuhrmann Henschel," or in Hardy, or in Sudermann? (I mean, of course, Sudermann the novelist. Sudermann the dramatist is a mere mechanician.)... The younger men in all countries, in so far as they challenge the current sentimentality at all, seem to move irresistibly toward the same disdainful skepticism. Consider the last words of "Riders to the Sea." Or Gorky's "Nachtasyl." Or Frank Norris' "McTeague." Or Stephen Crane's "The Blue Hotel." Or the ironical fables of Dunsany. Or Dreiser's "Jennie Gerhardt." Or George Moore's "Sister Teresa."

Conrad, more than any of the other men I have mentioned, grounds his work firmly upon this sense of cosmic implacability, this confession of unintelligibility. The exact point of the story of Kurtz, in "Heart of Darkness," is that it is pointless, that Kurtz's death is as meaningless as his life, that the moral of such a sordid tragedy is a wholesale negation of all morals. And this, no less, is the point of the story of Falk, and of that of Almayer, and of that of Jim. Mr. Follett (he must be a forward-looker in his heart!) finds himself, in the end, unable to accept so profound a determinism unadulterated, and so he injects a gratuitous and mythical romanticism into it, and hymns Conrad "as a comrade, one of a company gathered under the ensign of hope for common war on despair." With even greater error, William Lyon Phelps argues that his books "are based on the axiom of the moral law."[2] The one notion is as unsound as the other. Conrad makes war on nothing; he is pre-eminently not a moralist. He swings, indeed, as far from revolt and moralizing as is possible, for he does not even criticize God. His undoubted comradeship, his plain kindliness toward the soul he vivisects, is not the fruit of moral certainty, but of moral agnosticism. He neither protests nor punishes; he merely smiles and pities. Like Mark Twain he might well say: "The more I see of men, the more they amuse me—and the more I pity them." He is simpatico precisely because of this ironical commiseration, this infinite disillusionment, this sharp understanding of the narrow limits of human volition and responsibility.... I have said that he does not criticize God. One may even imagine him pitying God....

Sec. 2

But in this pity, I need not add, there is no touch of sentimentality. No man could be less the romantic, blubbering over the sorrows of his own Werthers. No novelist could have smaller likeness to the brummagem emotion-squeezers of the Kipling type, with their playhouse fustian and their naive ethical cocksureness. The thing that sets off Conrad from these facile fellows, and from the shallow pseudo-realists who so often coalesce with them and become indistinguishable from them, is precisely his quality of irony, and that irony is no more than a proof of the greater maturity of his personal culture, his essential superiority as a civilized man. It is the old difference between a Huxley and a Gladstone, a philosophy that is profound and a philosophy that is merely comfortable, "Quid est veritas?" and "Thus saith the Lord!" He brings into the English fiction of the day, not only an artistry that is vastly more fluent and delicate than the general, but also a highly unusual sophistication, a quite extraordinary detachment from all petty rages and puerile certainties. The winds of doctrine, howling all about him, leave him absolutely unmoved. He belongs to no party and has nothing to teach, save only a mystery as old as man. In the midst of the hysterical splutterings and battle-cries of the Kiplings and Chestertons, the booming pedagogics of the Wellses and Shaws, and the smirking at key-holes of the Bennetts and de Morgans, he stands apart and almost alone, observing the sardonic comedy of man with an eye that sees every point and significance of it, but vouchsafing none of that sophomoric indignation, that Hyde Park wisdom, that flabby moralizing which freight and swamp the modern English novel. "At the centre of his web," says Arthur Symons, "sits an elemental sarcasm discussing human affairs with a calm and cynical ferocity.... He calls up all the dreams and illusions by which men have been destroyed and saved, and lays them mockingly naked.... He shows the bare side of every virtue, the hidden heroism of every vice and crime. He summons before him all the injustices that have come to birth out of ignorance and self-love.... And in all this there is no judgment, only an implacable comprehension, as of one outside nature, to whom joy and sorrow, right and wrong, savagery and civilization, are equal and indifferent...."[3]

Obviously, no Englishman! No need to explain (with something akin to apology) that his name is really not Joseph Conrad at all, but Teodor Josef Konrad Karzeniowski, and that he is a Pole of noble lineage, with a vague touch of the Asiatic in him. The Anglo-Saxon mind, in these later days, becomes increasingly incapable of his whole point of view. Put into plain language, his doctrine can only fill it with wonder and fury. That mind is essentially moral in cut; it is believing, certain, indignant; it is as incapable of skepticism, save as a passing coryza of the spirit, as it is of wit, which is skepticism's daughter. Time was when this was not true, as Congreve, Pope, Wycherley and even Thackeray show, but that time was before the Reform Bill of 1832, the great intellectual levelling, the emancipation of the chandala. In these our days the Englishman is an incurable foe of distinction, and being so he must needs take in with his mother's milk the delusions which go with that enmity, and particularly the master delusion that all human problems, in the last analysis, are readily soluble, and that all that is required for their solution is to take counsel freely, to listen to wizards, to count votes, to agree upon legislation. This is the prime and immovable doctrine of the mobile vulgus set free; it is the loveliest of all the fruits of its defective powers of observation and reasoning, and above all, of its defective knowledge of demonstrated facts, especially in history. Take away this notion that there is some mysterious infallibility in the sense of the majority, this theory that the consensus of opinion is inspired, and the idea of equality begins to wither; in fact, it ceases to have any intelligibility at all. But the notion is not taken away; it is nourished; it flourishes on its own effluvia. And out of it spring the two rules which give direction to all popular thinking, the first being that no concept in politics or conduct is valid (or more accurately respectable), which rises above the comprehension of the great masses of men, or which violates any of their inherent prejudices or superstitions, and the second being that the articulate individual in the mob takes on some of the authority and inspiration of the mob itself, and that he is thus free to set himself up as a soothsayer, so long as he does not venture beyond the aforesaid bounds—in brief, that one man's opinion, provided it observe the current decorum, is as good as any other man's.

Practically, of course, this is simply an invitation to quackery. The man of genuine ideas is hedged in by taboos; the quack finds an audience already agape. The reply to the invitation, in the domain of applied ethics, is the revived and reinforced Sklavenmoral that besets all of us of English speech—the huggermugger morality of timorous, whining, unintelligent and unimaginative men—envy turned into law, cowardice sanctified, stupidity made noble, Puritanism. And in the theoretical field there is an even more luxuriant crop of bosh. Mountebanks almost innumerable tell us what we should believe and practice, in politics, religion, philosophy and the arts. England and the United States, between them, house more creeds than all the rest of the world together, and they are more absurd. They rise, they flame, they fall and go out, but always there are new ones, always the latest is worse than the last. What modern civilization save this of ours could have produced Christian Science, or the New Thought, or Billy Sundayism? What other could have yielded up the mawkish bumptiousness of the Uplift? What other could accept gravely the astounding imbecilities of English philanthropy and American law? The native output of fallacy and sentimentality, in fact, is not enough to satisfy the stupendous craving of the mob unleashed; there must needs be a constant importation of the aberrant fancies of other peoples. Let a new messiah leap up with a new message in any part of the world, and at once there is a response from the two great free nations. Once it was Tolstoi with a mouldy asceticism made of catacomb Christianity and senile soul-sickness; again it was Bergson, with a perfumed quasi-philosophy for the boudoirs of the faubourgs; yet again came Rudolf Eucken and Pastor Wagner, with their middle-class beeriness and banality. The list need go no further. It begins with preposterous Indian swamis and yoghis (most of them, to do them justice, diligent Jews from Grand street or the bagnios of Constantinople), and it ends with the fabulous Ibsen of the symbols (no more the real Ibsen than Christ was a prohibitionist), the Ellen Key of the new gyneolatry and the Signorina Montessori of the magical Method. It was a sure instinct that brought Eusapia Palladino to New York. It was the same sure instinct that brought Hall Caine.

I have mentioned Ibsen. A glance at the literature he has spawned in the vulgate is enough to show how much his falser aspects have intrigued the American mind and how little it has reacted to his shining skill as a dramatic craftsman—his one authentic claim upon fame. Read Jennette Lee's "The Ibsen Secret,"[4] perhaps the most successful of all the Ibsen gemaras in English, if you would know the virulence of the national appetite for bogus revelation. And so in all the arts. Whatever is profound and penetrating we stand off from; whatever is facile and shallow, particularly if it reveal a moral or mystical color, we embrace. Ibsen the first-rate dramatist was rejected with indignation precisely because of his merits—his sharp observation, his sardonic realism, his unsentimental logic. But the moment a meretricious and platitudinous ethical purpose began to be read into him—how he protested against it!—he was straightway adopted into our flabby culture. Compare Hauptmann and Brieux, the one a great artist, the other no more than a raucous journalist. Brieux's elaborate proofs that two and two are four have been hailed as epoch-making; one of his worst plays, indeed, has been presented with all the solemn hocus-pocus of a religious rite. But Hauptmann remains almost unknown; even the Nobel Prize did not give him a vogue. Run the roll: Maeterlinck and his languishing supernaturalism, Tagore and his Asiatic wind music, Selma Lagerloef and her old maid's mooniness, Bernstein, Molnar and company and their out-worn tricks—but I pile up no more names. Consider one fact: the civilization that kissed Maeterlinck on both cheeks, and Tagore perhaps even more intimately, has yet to shake hands with Anatole France....

This bemusement by superficial ideas, this neck-bending to quacks, this endless appetite for sesames and apocalypses, is depressingly visible in our native literature, as it is in our native theology, philosophy and politics. "The British and American mind," says W. L. George,[5] "has been long honey-combed with moral impulse, at any rate since the Reformation; it is very much what the German mind was up to the middle of the Nineteenth Century." The artist, facing an audience which seems incapable of differentiating between aesthetic and ethical values, tends to become a preacher of sonorous nothings, and the actual moralist-propagandist finds his way into art well greased. No other people in Christendom produces so vast a crop of tin-horn haruspices. We have so many Orison Swett Mardens, Martin Tuppers, Edwin Markhams, Gerald Stanley Lees, Dr. Frank Cranes and Dr. Sylvanus Stalls that their output is enough to supply the whole planet. We see, too, constantly, how thin is the barrier separating the chief Anglo-Saxon novelists and playwrights from the pasture of the platitudinarian. Jones and Pinero both made their first strikes, not as the artists they undoubtedly are, but as pinchbeck moralists, moaning over the sad fact that girls are seduced. Shaw, a highly dexterous dramaturgist, smothers his dramaturgy in a pifflish iconoclasm that is no more than a disguise for Puritanism. Bennett and Wells, competent novelists, turn easily from the novel to the volume of shoddy philosophizing. Kipling, with "Kim" behind him, becomes a vociferous leader-writer of the Daily Mail school, whooping a pothouse patriotism, hurling hysterical objurgations at the foe. Even W. L. George, potentially a novelist of sound consideration, drops his craft for the jehad of the suffragettes. Doyle, Barrie, Caine, Locke, Barker, Mrs. Ward, Beresford, Hewlett, Watson, Quiller-Couch—one and all, high and low, they are tempted by the public demand for sophistry, the ready market for pills. A Henry Bordeaux, in France, is an exception; in England he is the rule. The endless thirst to be soothed with cocksure asseverations, the great mob yearning to be dosed and comforted, is the undoing, over there, of three imaginative talents out of five.

And, in America, of nearly five out of five. Winston Churchill may serve as an example. He is a literary workman of very decent skill; the native critics speak of him with invariable respect; his standing within the craft was shown when he was unanimously chosen first president of the Authors' League of America. Examine his books in order. They proceed steadily from studies of human character and destiny, the proper business of the novelist, to mere outpourings of social and economic panaceas, the proper business of leader writers, chautauquas rabble-rousers and hedge politicians. "The Celebrity" and "Richard Carvel," within their limits, are works of art; "The Inside of the Cup" is no more than a compendium of paralogy, as silly and smattering as a speech by William Jennings Bryan or a shocker by Jane Addams. Churchill, with the late Jack London to bear him company, may stand for a large class; in its lower ranks are such men as Reginald Wright Kauffman and Will Levington Comfort. Still more typical of the national taste for moral purpose and quack philosophy are the professional optimists and eye-dimmers, with their two grand divisions, the boarding-school romantics and the Christian Endeavor Society sentimentalists. Of the former I give you George Barr McCutcheon, Owen Wister, the late Richard Harding Davis, and a horde of women—most of them now humanely translated to the moving pictures. Of the latter I give you the fair authors of the "glad" books, so gigantically popular, so lavishly praised in the newspapers—with the wraith of the later Howells, the virtuous, kittenish Howells, floating about in the air above them. No other country can parallel this literature, either in its copiousness or in its banality. It is native and peculiar to a civilization which erects the unshakable certainties of the misinformed and quack-ridden into a national way of life....

Sec. 3

My business, however, is not with the culture of Anglo-Saxondom, but only with Conrad's place therein. That place is isolated and remote; he is neither of it nor quite in it. In the midst of a futile meliorism which deceives the more, the more it soothes, he stands out like some sinister skeleton at the feast, regarding the festivities with a flickering and impenetrable grin. "To read him," says Arthur Symons, "is to shudder on the edge of a gulf, in a silent darkness." There is no need to be told that he is there almost by accident, that he came in a chance passerby, a bit uncertain of the door. It was not an artistic choice that made him write English instead of French; it was a choice with its roots in considerations far afield. But once made, it concerned him no further. In his first book he was plainly a stranger, and all himself; in his last he is a stranger still—strange in his manner of speech, strange in his view of life, strange, above all, in his glowing and gorgeous artistry, his enthusiasm for beauty per se, his absolute detachment from that heresy which would make it no more than a servant to some bald and depressing theory of conduct, some axiom of the uncomprehending. He is, like Dunsany, a pure artist. His work, as he once explained, is not to edify, to console, to improve or to encourage, but simply to get upon paper some shadow of his own eager sense of the wonder and prodigality of life as men live it in the world, and of its unfathomable romance and mystery. "My task," he went on, "is, by the power of the written word, to make you hear, to make you feel—it is, before all, to make you see. That—and no more, and it is everything."...[6]

This detachment from all infra-and-ultra-artistic purpose, this repudiation of the role of propagandist, this avowal of what Nietzsche was fond of calling innocence, explains the failure of Conrad to fit into the pigeon-holes so laboriously prepared for him by critics who must shelve and label or be damned. He is too big for any of them, and of a shape too strange. He stands clear, not only of all the schools and factions that obtain in latter-day English fiction, but also of the whole stream of English literature since the Restoration. He is as isolated a figure as George Moore, and for much the same reason. Both are exotics, and both, in a very real sense, are public enemies, for both war upon the philosophies that caress the herd. Is Conrad the beyond-Kipling, as the early criticism of him sought to make him? Nonsense! As well speak of Mark Twain as the beyond-Petroleum V. Nasby (as, indeed, was actually done). He is not only a finer artist than Kipling; he is a quite different kind of artist. Kipling, within his limits, shows a talent of a very high order. He is a craftsman of the utmost deftness. He gets his effects with almost perfect assurance. Moreover, there is a poet in him; he knows how to reach the emotions. But once his stories are stripped down to the bare carcass their emptiness becomes immediately apparent. The ideas in them are not the ideas of a reflective and perspicacious man, but simply the ideas of a mob-orator, a mouther of inanities, a bugler, a school-girl. Reduce any of them to a simple proposition, and that proposition, in so far as it is intelligible at all, will be ridiculous. It is precisely here that Conrad leaps immeasurably ahead. His ideas are not only sound; they are acute and unusual. They plough down into the sub-strata of human motive and act. They unearth conditions and considerations that lie concealed from the superficial glance. They get at the primary reactions. In particular and above all, they combat the conception of man as a pet and privy councillor of the gods, working out his own destiny in a sort of vacuum and constantly illumined by infallible revelations of his duty, and expose him as he is in fact: an organism infinitely more sensitive and responsive than other organisms, but still a mere organism in the end, a brother to the wild things and the protozoa, swayed by the same inscrutable fortunes, condemned to the same inchoate errors and irresolutions, and surrounded by the same terror and darkness....

But is the Conrad I here describe simply a new variety of moralist, differing from the general only in the drift of the doctrine he preaches? Surely not. He is no more a moralist than an atheist is a theologian. His attitude toward all moral systems and axioms is that of a skeptic who rejects them unanimously, even including, and perhaps especially including, those to which, in moments of aesthetic detachment, he seems to give a formal and resigned sort of assent. It is this constant falling back upon "I do not know," this incessant conversion of the easy logic of romance into the harsh and dismaying logic of fact, that explains his failure to succeed as a popular novelist, despite his skill at evoking emotion, his towering artistic passion, his power to tell a thumping tale. He is talked of, he brings forth a mass of punditic criticism, he becomes in a sense the fashion; but it would be absurd to say that he has made the same profound impression upon the great class of normal novel-readers that Arnold Bennett once made, or H. G. Wells, or William de Morgan in his brief day, or even such cheap-jacks as Anthony Hope Hawkins and William J. Locke. His show fascinates, but his philosophy, in the last analysis, is unbearable. And in particular it is unbearable to women. One rarely meets a woman who, stripped of affection, shows any genuine enthusiasm for a Conrad book, or, indeed, any genuine comprehension of it. The feminine mind, which rules in English fiction, both as producer and as consumer, craves inevitably a more confident and comforting view of the world than Conrad has to offer. It seeks, not disillusion, but illusion. It protects itself against the disquieting questioning of life by pretending that all the riddles have been solved, that each new sage answers them afresh, that a few simple principles suffice to dispose of them. Women, one may say, have to subscribe to absurdities in order to account for themselves at all; it is the instinct of self-preservation which sends them to priests, as to other quacks. This is not because they are unintelligent, but rather because they have that sharp and sure sort of intelligence which is instinctive, and which passes under the name of intuition. It teaches them that the taboos which surround them, however absurd at bottom, nevertheless penalize their courage and curiosity with unescapable dudgeon, and so they become partisans of the existing order, and, per corollary, of the existing ethic. They may be menaced by phantoms, but at all events these phantoms really menace them. A woman who reacted otherwise than with distrust to such a book as "Victory" would be as abnormal as a woman who embraced "Jenseits von Gut und Boese" or "The Inestimable Life of the Great Gargantua."

As for Conrad, he retaliates by approaching the sex somewhat gingerly. His women, in the main, are no more than soiled and tattered cards in a game played by the gods. The effort to erect them into the customary "sympathetic" heroines of fiction always breaks down under the drum fire of the plain facts. He sees quite accurately, it seems to me, how vastly the role of women has been exaggerated, how little they amount to in the authentic struggle of man. His heroes are moved by avarice, by ambition, by rebellion, by fear, by that "obscure inner necessity" which passes for nobility or the sense of duty—never by that puerile passion which is the mainspring of all masculine acts and aspirations in popular novels and on the stage. If they yield to amour at all, it is only at the urging of some more powerful and characteristic impulse, e.g., a fantastic notion of chivalry, as in the case of Heyst, or the thirst for dominion, as in the case of Kurtz. The one exception is offered by Razumov—and Razumov is Conrad's picture of a flabby fool, of a sentimentalist destroyed by his sentimentality. Dreiser has shown much the same process in Witla and Cowperwood, but he is less free from the conventional obsession than Conrad; he takes a love affair far more naively, and hence far more seriously.

I used to wonder why Conrad never tackled a straight-out story of adultery under Christianity, the standard matter of all our more pretentious fiction and drama. I was curious to see what his ethical agnosticism would make of it. The conclusion I came to at first was that his failure marked the limitations of his courage—in brief, that he hesitated to go against the orthodox axioms and assumptions in the department where they were most powerfully maintained. But it seems to me now that his abstinence has not been the fruit of timidity, but of disdain. He has shied at the hypothesis, not at its implications. His whole work, in truth, is a destructive criticism of the prevailing notion that such a story is momentous and worth telling. The current gyneolatry is as far outside his scheme of things as the current program of rewards and punishments, sins and virtues, causes and effects. He not only sees clearly that the destiny and soul of man are not moulded by petty jousts of sex, as the prophets of romantic love would have us believe; he is so impatient of the fallacy that he puts it as far behind him as possible, and sets his conflicts amid scenes that it cannot penetrate, save as a palpable absurdity. Love, in his stories, is either a feeble phosphorescence or a gigantic grotesquerie. In "Heart of Darkness," perhaps, we get his typical view of it. Over all the frenzy and horror of the tale itself floats the irony of the trusting heart back in Brussels. Here we have his measure of the master sentimentality of them all....

Sec. 4

As for Conrad the literary craftsman, opposing him for the moment to Conrad the showman of the human comedy, the quality that all who write about him seem chiefly to mark in him is his scorn of conventional form, his tendency to approach his story from two directions at once, his frequent involvement in apparently inextricable snarls of narrative, sub-narrative and sub-sub-narrative. "Lord Jim," for example, starts out in the third person, presently swings into an exhaustive psychological discussion by the mythical Marlow, then goes into a brisk narrative at second (and sometimes at third) hand, and finally comes to a halt upon an unresolved dissonance, a half-heard chord of the ninth: "And that's the end. He passes away under a cloud, inscrutable at heart, forgotten, unforgiven, and excessively romantic." "Falk" is also a story within a story; this time the narrator is "one who had not spoken before, a man over fifty." In "Amy Foster" romance is filtered through the prosaic soul of a country doctor; it is almost as if a statistician told the tale of Horatius at the bridge. In "Under Western Eyes" the obfuscation is achieved by "a teacher of languages," endlessly lamenting his lack of the "high gifts of imagination and expression." In "Youth" and "Heart of Darkness" the chronicler and speculator is the shadowy Marlow, a "cloak to goe inbisabell" for Conrad himself. In "Chance" there are two separate stories, imperfectly welded together. Elsewhere there are hesitations, goings back, interpolations, interludes in the Socratic manner. And almost always there is heaviness in the getting under weigh. In "Heart of Darkness" we are on the twentieth page before we see the mouth of the great river, and in "Falk" we are on the twenty-fourth before we get a glimpse of Falk. "Chance" is nearly half done before the drift of the action is clearly apparent. In "Almayer's Folly" we are thrown into the middle of a story, and do not discover its beginning until we come to "An Outcast of the Islands," a later book. As in structure, so in detail. Conrad pauses to explain, to speculate, to look about. Whole chapters concern themselves with detailed discussions of motives, with exchanges of views, with generalizations abandoned as soon as they are made. Even the author's own story, "A Personal Record" (in the English edition, "Some Reminiscences") starts near the end, and then goes back, halting tortuously, to the beginning.

In the eyes of orthodox criticism, of course, this is a grave fault. The Kipling-Wells style of swift, shouldering, button-holing writing has accustomed readers and critics alike to a straight course and a rapid tempo. Moreover, it has accustomed them to a forthright certainty and directness of statement; they expect an author to account for his characters at once, and on grounds instantly comprehensible. This omniscience is a part of the prodigality of moral theory that I have been discussing. An author who knows just what is the matter with the world may be quite reasonably expected to know just what is the matter with his hero. Neither sort of assurance, I need not say, is to be found in Conrad. He is an inquirer, not a law-giver; an experimentalist, not a doctor. One constantly derives from his stories the notion that he is as much puzzled by his characters as the reader is—that he, too, is feeling his way among shadowy evidences. The discoveries that we make, about Lord Jim, about Nostromo or about Kurtz, come as fortuitously and as unexpectedly as the discoveries we make about the real figures of our world. The picture is built up bit by bit; it is never flashed suddenly and completely as by best-seller calciums; it remains a bit dim at the end. But in that very dimness, so tantalizing and yet so revealing, lies two-thirds of Conrad's art, or his craft, or his trick, or whatever you choose to call it. What he shows us is blurred at the edges, but so is life itself blurred at the edges. We see least clearly precisely what is nearest to us, and is hence most real to us. A man may profess to understand the President of the United States, but he seldom alleges, even to himself, that he understands his own wife.

In the character and in its reactions, in the act and in the motive: always that tremulousness, that groping, that confession of final bewilderment. "He passes away under a cloud, inscrutable at heart...." And the cloud enshrouds the inner man as well as the outer, the secret springs of his being as well as the overt events of his life. "His meanest creatures," says Arthur Symons, "have in them a touch of honour, of honesty, or of heroism; his heroes have always some error, weakness, or mistake, some sin or crime, to redeem." What is Lord Jim, scoundrel and poltroon or gallant knight? What is Captain MacWhirr, hero or simply ass? What is Falk, beast or idealist? One leaves "Heart of Darkness" in that palpitating confusion which is shot through with intense curiosity. Kurtz is at once the most abominable of rogues and the most fantastic of dreamers. It is impossible to differentiate between his vision and his crimes, though all that we look upon as order in the universe stands between them. In Dreiser's novels there is the same anarchy of valuations, and it is chiefly responsible for the rage he excites in the unintelligent. The essential thing about Cowperwood is that he is two diverse beings at once; a puerile chaser of women and a great artist, a guinea pig and half a god. The essential thing about Carrie Meeber is that she remains innocent in the midst of her contaminations, that the virgin lives on in the kept woman. This is not the art of fiction as it is conventionally practised and understood. It is not explanation, labelling, assurance, moralizing. In the cant of newspaper criticism, it does not "satisfy." But the great artist is never one who satisfies in that feeble sense; he leaves the business to mountebanks who do it better. "My purpose," said Ibsen, "is not to answer questions; it is to ask them." The spectator must bring something with him beyond the mere faculty of attention. If, coming to Conrad, he cannot, he is at the wrong door.

Sec. 5

Conrad's predilection for barbarous scenes and the more bald and shocking sort of drama has an obviously autobiographical basis. His own road ran into strange places in the days of his youth. He moved among men who were menaced by all the terrestrial cruelties, and by the almost unchecked rivalry and rapacity of their fellow men, without any appreciable barriers, whether of law, of convention or of sentimentality, to shield them. The struggle for existence, as he saw it, was well nigh as purely physical among human beings as among the carnivora of the jungle. Some of his stories, and among them his very best, are plainly little more than transcripts of his own experience. He himself is the enchanted boy of "Youth"; he is the ship-master of "Heart of Darkness"; he hovers in the background of all the island books and is visibly present in most of the tales of the sea.

And what he got out of that early experience was more than a mere body of reminiscence; it was a scheme of valuations. He came to his writing years with a sailor's disdain for the trifling hazards and emprises of market places and drawing rooms, and it shows itself whenever he sets pen to paper. A conflict, it would seem, can make no impression upon him save it be colossal. When his men combat, not nature, but other men, they carry over into the business the gigantic method of sailors battling with a tempest. "The Secret Agent" and "Under Western Eyes" fill the dull back streets of London and Geneva with pursuits, homicides and dynamitings. "Nostromo" is a long record of treacheries, butcheries and carnalities. "A Point of Honor" is coloured by the senseless, insatiable ferocity of Gobineau's "Renaissance." "Victory" ends with a massacre of all the chief personages, a veritable catastrophe of blood. Whenever he turns from the starker lusts to the pale passions of man under civilization, Conrad fails. "The Return" is a thoroughly infirm piece of writing—a second rate magazine story. One concludes at once that the author himself does not believe in it. "The Inheritors" is worse; it becomes, after the first few pages, a flaccid artificiality, a bore. It is impossible to imagine the chief characters of the Conrad gallery in such scenes. Think of Captain MacWhirr reacting to social tradition, Lord Jim immersed in the class war, Lena Hermann seduced by the fashions, Almayer a candidate for office! As well think of Huckleberry Finn at Harvard, or Tom Jones practising law.

These things do not interest Conrad, chiefly, I suppose, because he does not understand them. His concern, one may say, is with the gross anatomy of passion, not with its histology. He seeks to depict emotion, not in its ultimate attenuation, but in its fundamental innocence and fury. Inevitably, his materials are those of what we call melodrama; he is at one, in the bare substance of his tales, with the manufacturers of the baldest shockers. But with a difference!—a difference, to wit, of approach and comprehension, a difference abysmal and revolutionary. He lifts melodrama to the dignity of an important business, and makes it a means to an end that the mere shock-monger never dreams of. In itself, remember, all this up-roar and blood-letting is not incredible, nor even improbable. The world, for all the pressure of order, is still full of savage and stupendous conflicts, of murders and debaucheries, of crimes indescribable and adventures almost unimaginable. One cannot reasonably ask a novelist to deny them or to gloss over them; all one may demand of him is that, if he make artistic use of them, he render them understandable—that he logically account for them, that he give them plausibility by showing their genesis in intelligible motives and colourable events.

The objection to the conventional melodramatist is that he fails to do this. It is not that his efforts are too florid, but that his causes are too puny. For all his exuberance of fancy, he seldom shows us a downright impossible event; what he does constantly show us is an inadequate and hence unconvincing motive. In a cheap theatre we see a bad actor, imperfectly disguised as a viscount, bind a shrieking young woman to the railroad tracks, with an express train approaching. Why does he do it? The melodramatist offers a double-headed reason, the first part being that the viscount is an amalgam of Satan and Don Juan and the second being that the young woman prefers death to dishonour. Both parts are absurd. Our eyes show us at once that the fellow is far more the floorwalker, the head barber, the Knight of Pythias than either the Satan or the Don Juan, and our experience of life tells us that young women in yellow wigs do not actually rate their virginity so dearly. But women are undoubtedly done to death in this way—not every day, perhaps, but now and then. Men bind them, trains run over them, the newspapers discuss the crime, the pursuit of the felon, the ensuing jousting of the jurisconsults. Why, then? The true answer, when it is forthcoming at all, is always much more complex than the melodramatist's answer. It may be so enormously complex, indeed, as to transcend all the normal laws of cause and effect. It may be an answer made up largely, or even wholly, of the fantastic, the astounding, the unearthly reasons of lunacy. That is the chief, if not the only difference between melodrama and reality. The events of the two may be, and often are identical. It is only in their underlying network of causes that they are dissimilar and incommensurate.

Here, in brief, you have the point of essential distinction between the stories of Conrad, a supreme artist in fiction, and the trashy confections of the literary artisans—e.g., Sienkiewicz, Dumas, Lew Wallace, and their kind. Conrad's materials, at bottom, are almost identical with those of the artisans. He, too, has his chariot races, his castaways, his carnivals of blood in the arena. He, too, takes us through shipwrecks, revolutions, assassinations, gaudy heroisms, abominable treacheries. But always he illuminates the nude and amazing event with shafts of light which reveal not only the last detail of its workings, but also the complex of origins and inducements behind it. Always, he throws about it a probability which, in the end, becomes almost inevitability. His "Nostromo," for example, in its externals, is a mere tale of South American turmoil; its materials are those of "Soldiers of Fortune." But what a difference in method, in point of approach, in inner content! Davis was content to show the overt act, scarcely accounting for it at all, and then only in terms of conventional romance. Conrad penetrates to the motive concealed in it, the psychological spring and basis of it, the whole fabric of weakness, habit and aberration underlying it. The one achieved an agreeable romance, and an agreeable romance only. The other achieves an extraordinarily brilliant and incisive study of the Latin-American temperament—a full length exposure of the perverse passions and incomprehensible ideals which provoke presumably sane men to pursue one another like wolves, and of the reactions of that incessant pursuit upon the men themselves, and upon their primary ideas, and upon the institutions under which they live. I do not say that Conrad is always exhaustive in his explanations, or that he is accurate. In the first case I know that he often is not, in the second case I do not know whether he is or he isn't. But I do say that, within the scope of his vision, he is wholly convincing; that the men and women he sets into his scene show ineluctably vivid and persuasive personality; that the theories he brings forward to account for their acts are intelligible; that the effects of those acts, upon actors and immediate spectators alike, are such as might be reasonably expected to issue; that the final impression is one of searching and indubitable veracity. One leaves "Nostromo" with a memory as intense and lucid as that of a real experience. The thing is not mere photography. It is interpretative painting at its highest.

In all his stories you will find this same concern with the inextricable movement of phenomena and noumena between event and event, this same curiosity as to first causes and ultimate effects. Sometimes, as in "The Point of Honor" and "The End of the Tether," he attempts to work out the obscure genesis, in some chance emotion or experience, of an extraordinary series of transactions. At other times, as in "Typhoon," "Youth," "Falk" and "The Shadow Line," his endeavour is to determine the effect of some gigantic and fortuitous event upon the mind and soul of a given man. At yet other times, as in "Almayer's Folly," "Lord Jim" and "Under Western Eyes," it is his aim to show how cause and effect are intricately commingled, so that it is difficult to separate motive from consequence, and consequence from motive. But always it is the process of mind rather than the actual act that interests him. Always he is trying to penetrate the actor's mask and interpret the actor's frenzy. It is this concern with the profounder aspects of human nature, this bold grappling with the deeper and more recondite problems of his art, that gives him consideration as a first-rate artist. He differs from the common novelists of his time as a Beethoven differs from a Mendelssohn. Some of them are quite his equals in technical skill, and a few of them, notably Bennett and Wells, often show an actual superiority, but when it comes to that graver business which underlies all mere virtuosity, he is unmistakably the superior of the whole corps of them.

This superiority is only the more vividly revealed by the shop-worn shoddiness of most of his materials. He takes whatever is nearest to hand, out of his own rich experience or out of the common store of romance. He seems to disdain the petty advantages which go with the invention of novel plots, extravagant characters and unprecedented snarls of circumstance. All the classical doings of anarchists are to be found in "The Secret Agent"; one has heard them copiously credited, of late, to so-called Reds. "Youth," as a story, is no more than an orthodox sea story, and W. Clark Russell contrived better ones. In "Chance" we have a stern father at his immemorial tricks. In "Victory" there are villains worthy of Jack B. Yeats' melodramas of the Spanish Main. In "Nostromo" we encounter the whole stock company of Richard Harding Davis and O. Henry. And in "Under Western Eyes" the protagonist is one who finds his love among the women of his enemies—a situation at the heart of all the military melodramas ever written.

But what Conrad makes of that ancient and fly-blown stuff, that rubbish from the lumber room of the imagination! Consider, for example, "Under Western Eyes," by no means the best of his stories. The plot is that of "Shenandoah" and "Held by the Enemy"—but how brilliantly it is endowed with a new significance, how penetratingly its remotest currents are followed out, how magnificently it is made to fit into that colossal panorama of Holy Russia! It is always this background, this complex of obscure and baffling influences, this drama under the drama, that Conrad spends his skill upon, and not the obvious commerce of the actual stage. It is not the special effect that he seeks, but the general effect. It is not so much man the individual that interests him, as the shadowy accumulation of traditions, instincts and blind chances which shapes the individual's destiny. Here, true enough, we have a full-length portrait of Razumov, glowing with life. But here, far more importantly, we also have an amazingly meticulous and illuminating study of the Russian character, with all its confused mingling of Western realism and Oriental fogginess, its crazy tendency to go shooting off into the spaces of an incomprehensible metaphysic, its general transcendence of all that we Celts and Saxons and Latins hold to be true of human motive and human act. Russia is a world apart: that is the sum and substance of the tale. In the island stories we have the same elaborate projection of the East, of its fantastic barbarism, of brooding Asia. And in the sea stories we have, perhaps for the first time in English fiction, a vast and adequate picture of the sea, the symbol at once of man's eternal striving and of his eternal impotence. Here, at last, the colossus has found its interpreter. There is in "Typhoon" and "The Nigger of the Narcissus," and, above all, in "The Mirror of the Sea," a poetic evocation of the sea's stupendous majesty that is unparalleled outside the ancient sagas. Conrad describes it with a degree of graphic skill that is superb and incomparable. He challenges at once the pictorial vigour of Hugo and the aesthetic sensitiveness of Lafcadio Hearn, and surpasses them both. And beyond this mere dazzling visualization, he gets into his pictures an overwhelming sense of that vast drama of which they are no more than the flat, lifeless representation—of that inexorable and uncompassionate struggle which is life itself. The sea to him is a living thing, an omnipotent and unfathomable thing, almost a god. He sees it as the Eternal Enemy, deceitful in its caresses, sudden in its rages, relentless in its enmities, and forever a mystery.

Sec. 6

Conrad's first novel, "Almayer's Folly," was printed in 1895. He tells us in "A Personal Record" that it took him seven years to write it—seven years of pertinacious effort, of trial and error, of learning how to write. He was, at this time thirty-eight years old. Seventeen years before, landing in England to fit himself for the British merchant service, he had made his first acquaintance with the English language. The interval had been spent almost continuously at sea—in the Eastern islands, along the China coast, on the Congo and in the South Atlantic. That he hesitated between French and English is a story often told, but he himself is authority for the statement that it is more symbolical than true. Flaubert, in those days, was his idol, as we know, but the speech of his daily business won, and English literature reaped the greatest of all its usufructs from English sea power. To this day there are marks of his origins in his style. His periods, more than once, have an inept and foreign smack. In fishing for the right phrase one sometimes feels that he finds a French phrase, or even a Polish phrase, and that it loses something by being done into English.

The credit for discovering "Almayer's Folly," as the publishers say, belongs to Edward Garnett, then a reader for T. Fisher Unwin. The book was brought out modestly and seems to have received little attention. The first edition, it would appear, ran to no more than a thousand copies; at all events, specimens of it are now very hard to find, and collectors pay high prices for them. When "An Outcast of the Islands" followed, a year later, a few alert readers began to take notice of the author, and one of them was Sir (then Mr.) Hugh Clifford, a former Governor of the Federated Malay States and himself the author of several excellent books upon the Malay. Clifford gave Conrad encouragement privately and talked him up in literary circles, but the majority of English critics remained unaware of him. After an interval of two years, during which he struggled between his desire to write and the temptation to return to the sea, he published "The Nigger of the Narcissus."[7] It made a fair success of esteem, but still there was no recognition of the author's true stature. Then followed "Tales of Unrest" and "Lord Jim," and after them the feeblest of all the Conrad books, "The Inheritors," written in collaboration with Ford Madox Hueffer. It is easy to see in this collaboration, and no less in the character of the book, an indication of irresolution, and perhaps even of downright loss of hope. But success, in fact, was just around the corner. In 1902 came "Youth," and straightway Conrad was the lion of literary London. The chorus of approval that greeted it was almost a roar; all sorts of critics and reviewers, from H. G. Wells to W. L. Courtney, and from John Galsworthy to W. Robertson Nicoll, took a hand. Writing home to the New York Times, W. L. Alden reported that he had "not heard one dissenting voice in regard to the book," but that the praise it received "was unanimous," and that the newspapers and literary weeklies rivalled one another "in their efforts to express their admiration for it."

This benign whooping, however, failed to awaken the enthusiasm of the mass of novel-readers and brought but meagre orders from the circulating libraries. "Typhoon" came upon the heels of "Youth," but still the sales of the Conrad books continued small and the author remained in very uncomfortable circumstances. Even after four or five years he was still so poor that he was glad to accept a modest pension from the British Civil List. This official recognition of his genius, when it came at last, seems to have impressed the public, characteristically enough, far more than his books themselves had done, and the foundations were thus laid for that wider recognition of his genius which now prevails. But getting him on his legs was slow work, and such friends as Hueffer, Clifford and Galsworthy had to do a lot of arduous log-rolling. Even after the splash made by "Youth" his publishing arrangements seem to have remained somewhat insecure. His first eleven books show six different imprints; it was not until his twelfth that he settled down to a publisher. His American editions tell an even stranger story. The first six of them were brought out by six different publishers; the first eight by no less than seven. But today he has a regular American publisher at last, and in England a complete edition of his works is in progress.

Thanks to the indefatigable efforts of that American publisher (who labours for Gene Stratton-Porter and Gerald Stanley Lee in the same manner) Conrad has been forced upon the public notice in the United States, and it is the fashion among all who pretend to aesthetic consciousness to read him, or, at all events, to talk about him. His books have been brought together in a uniform edition for the newly intellectual, bound in blue leather, like the "complete library sets" of Kipling, O. Henry, Guy de Maupassant and Paul de Kock. The more literary newspapers print his praises; he is hymned by professorial critics as a prophet of virtue; his genius is certificated by such diverse authorities as Hildegarde Hawthorne and Louis Joseph Vance; I myself lately sat on a Conrad Committee, along with Booth Tarkington, David Belasco, Irvin Cobb, Walter Pritchard Eaton and Hamlin Garland—surely an astounding posse of literati! Moreover, Conrad himself shows a disposition to reach out for a wider audience. His "Victory," first published in Munsey's Magazine, revealed obvious efforts to be intelligible to the general. A few more turns of the screw and it might have gone into the Saturday Evening Post, between serials by Harris Dickson and Rex Beach.

Meanwhile, in the shadow of this painfully growing celebrity as a novelist, Conrad takes on consideration as a bibelot, and the dealers in first editions probably make more profit out of some of his books than ever he has made himself. His manuscripts are cornered, I believe, by an eminent collector of literary curiosities in New York, who seems to have a contract with the novelist to take them as fast as they are produced—perhaps the only arrangement of the sort in literary history. His first editions begin to bring higher premiums than those of any other living author. Considering the fact that the oldest of them is less than twenty-five years old, they probably set new records for the trade. Even the latest in date are eagerly sought, and it is not uncommon to see an English edition of a Conrad book sold at an advance in New York within a month of its publication.[8]

As I hint, however, there is not much reason to believe that this somewhat extravagant fashion is based upon any genuine liking, or any very widespread understanding. The truth is that, for all the adept tub-thumping of publishers, Conrad's sales still fall a good deal behind those of even the most modest of best-seller manufacturers, and that the respect with which his successive volumes are received is accompanied by enthusiasm in a relatively narrow circle only. A clan of Conrad fanatics exists, and surrounding it there is a body of readers who read him because it is the intellectual thing to do, and who talk of him because talking of him is expected. But beyond that he seems to make little impression. When "Victory" was printed in Munsey's Magazine it was a failure; no other single novel, indeed, contributed more toward the abandonment of the policy of printing a complete novel in each issue. The other popular magazines show but small inclination for Conrad manuscripts. Some time ago his account of a visit to Poland in war-time was offered on the American market by an English author's agent. At the start a price of $2,500 was put upon it, but after vainly inviting buyers for a couple of months it was finally disposed of to a literary newspaper which seldom spends so much as $2,500, I daresay, for a whole month's supply of copy.

In the United States, at least, novelists are made and unmade, not by critical majorities, but by women, male and female. The art of fiction among us, as Henry James once said, "is almost exclusively feminine." In the books of such a man as William Dean Howells it is difficult to find a single line that is typically and exclusively masculine. One could easily imagine Edith Wharton, or Mrs. Watts, or even Agnes Repplier, writing all of them. When a first-rate novelist emerges from obscurity it is almost always by some fortuitous plucking of the dexter string. "Sister Carrie," for example, has made a belated commercial success, not because its dignity as a human document is understood, but because it is mistaken for a sad tale of amour, not unrelated to "The Woman Thou Gavest Me" and "Dora Thorne." In Conrad there is no such sweet bait for the fair and sentimental. The sedentary multipara, curled up in her boudoir on a rainy afternoon, finds nothing to her taste in his grim tales. The Conrad philosophy is harsh, unyielding, repellent. The Conrad heroes are nearly all boors and ruffians. Their very love-making has something sinister and abhorrent in it; one cannot imagine them in the moving pictures, played by tailored beauties with long eye-lashes. More, I venture that the censors would object to them, even disguised as floor-walkers. Surely that would be a besotted board which would pass the irregular amours of Lord Jim, the domestic brawls of Almayer, the revolting devil's mass of Kurtz, Falk's disgusting feeding in the Southern Ocean, or the butchery on Heyst's island. Stevenson's "Treasure Island" has been put upon the stage, but "An Outcast of the Islands" would be as impossible there as "Barry Lyndon" or "La Terre." The world fails to breed actors for such roles, or stage managers to penetrate such travails of the spirit, or audiences for the revelation thereof.

With the Conrad cult, so discreetly nurtured out of a Barabbasian silo, there arises a considerable Conrad literature, most of it quite valueless. Huneker's essay, in "Ivory, Apes and Peacocks,"[9] gets little beyond the obvious; William Lyon Phelps, in "The Advance of the English Novel," achieves only a meagre judgment;[10] Frederic Taber Cooper tries to estimate such things as "The Secret Agent" and "Under Western Eyes" in terms of the Harvard enlightenment;[11] John Galsworthy wastes himself upon futile comparisons;[12] even Sir Hugh Clifford, for all his quick insight, makes irrelevant objections to Conrad's principles of Malay psychology.[13] Who cares? Conrad is his own God, and creates his own Malay! The best of the existing studies of Conrad, despite certain sentimentalities arising out of youth and schooling, is in the book of Wilson Follett, before mentioned. The worst is in the official biography by Richard Curle,[14] for which Conrad himself obtained a publisher and upon which his imprimatur may be thus assumed to lie. If it does, then its absurdities are nothing new, for we all know what a botch Ibsen made of accounting for himself. But, even so, the assumption stretches the probabilities more than once. Surely it is hard to think of Conrad putting "Lord Jim" below "Chance" and "The Secret Agent" on the ground that it "raises a fierce moral issue." Nothing, indeed, could be worse nonsense—save it be an American critic's doctrine that "Conrad denounces pessimism." "Lord Jim" no more raises a moral issue than "The Titan." It is, if anything, a devastating exposure of a moral issue. Its villain is almost heroic; its hero, judged by his peers, is a scoundrel....

Hugh Walpole, himself a competent novelist, does far better in his little volume, "Joseph Conrad."[15] In its brief space he is unable to examine all of the books in detail, but he at least manages to get through a careful study of Conrad's method, and his professional skill and interest make it valuable.

Sec. 7

There is a notion that judgments of living artists are impossible. They are bound to be corrupted, we are told, by prejudice, false perspective, mob emotion, error. The question whether this or that man is great or small is one which only posterity can answer. A silly begging of the question, for doesn't posterity also make mistakes? Shakespeare's ghost has seen two or three posterities, beautifully at odds. Even today, it must notice a difference in flitting from London to Berlin. The shade of Milton has been tricked in the same way. So, also, has Johann Sebastian Bach's. It needed a Mendelssohn to rescue it from Coventry—and now Mendelssohn himself, once so shining a light, is condemned to the shadows in his turn. We are not dead yet; we are here, and it is now. Therefore, let us at least venture, guess, opine.

My own conviction, sweeping all those reaches of living fiction that I know, is that Conrad's figure stands out from the field like the Alps from the Piedmont plain. He not only has no masters in the novel; he has scarcely a colourable peer. Perhaps Thomas Hardy and Anatole France—old men both, their work behind them. But who else? James is dead. Meredith is dead. So is George Moore, though he lingers on. So are all the Russians of the first rank; Andrieff, Gorki and their like are light cavalry. In Sudermann, Germany has a writer of short stories of very high calibre, but where is the German novelist to match Conrad? Clara Viebig? Thomas Mann? Gustav Frenssen? Arthur Schnitzler? Surely not! As for the Italians, they are either absurd tear-squeezers or more absurd harlequins. As for the Spaniards and the Scandinavians, they would pass for geniuses only in Suburbia. In America, setting aside an odd volume here and there, one can discern only Dreiser—and of Dreiser's limitations I shall discourse anon. There remains England. England has the best second-raters in the world; nowhere else is the general level of novel writing so high; nowhere else is there a corps of journeyman novelists comparable to Wells, Bennett, Benson, Walpole, Beresford, George, Galsworthy, Hichens, De Morgan, Miss Sinclair, Hewlett and company. They have a prodigious facility; they know how to write; even the least of them is, at all events, a more competent artisan than, say, Dickens, or Bulwer-Lytton, or Sienkiewicz, or Zola. But the literary grande passion is simply not in them. They get nowhere with their suave and interminable volumes. Their view of the world and its wonders is narrow and superficial. They are, at bottom, no more than clever mechanicians.

As Galsworthy has said, Conrad lifts himself immeasurably above them all. One might well call him, if the term had not been cheapened into cant, a cosmic artist. His mind works upon a colossal scale; he conjures up the general out of the particular. What he sees and describes in his books is not merely this man's aspiration or that woman's destiny, but the overwhelming sweep and devastation of universal forces, the great central drama that is at the heart of all other dramas, the tragic struggles of the soul of man under the gross stupidity and obscene joking of the gods. "In the novels of Conrad," says Galsworthy, "nature is first, man is second." But not a mute, a docile second! He may think, as Walpole argues, that "life is too strong, too clever and too remorseless for the sons of men," but he does not think that they are too weak and poor in spirit to challenge it. It is the challenging that engrosses him, and enchants him, and raises up the magic of his wonder. It is as futile, in the end, as Hamlet's or Faust's—but still a gallant and a gorgeous adventure, a game uproariously worth the playing, an enterprise "inscrutable ... and excessively romantic."...

If you want to get his measure, read "Youth" or "Falk" or "Heart of Darkness," and then try to read the best of Kipling. I think you will come to some understanding, by that simple experiment, of the difference between an adroit artisan's bag of tricks and the lofty sincerity and passion of a first-rate artist.


[1] Joseph Conrad: A short study of his intellectual and emotional attitude toward his work and of the chief characteristics of his novels, by Wilson Follett; New York, Doubleday, Page & Co. (1915).

[2] The Advance of the English Novel. New York, Dodd, Mead & Co., 1916, p. 215.

[3] Conrad, in the Forum, May, 1915.

[4] New York and London. G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1907.

[5] The Intelligence of Woman. Boston, Little, Brown & Co., 1916, p. 6-7.

[6] In The New Review, Dec., 1897.

[7] Printed in the United States as Children of the Sea, but now restored to its original title.

[8] Here are some actual prices from booksellers' catalogues:

1914 1916 1920

Almayer's Folly (1895) $12. $24. $40. An Outcast of the Islands (1896) 11.50 20. 35. The Nigger of the Narcissus (1898) 7.50 20. 35. Tales of Unrest (1898) 12.50 20. 35. Lord Jim (1900) 7.50 22.50 25. The Inheritors (1901) 12. 20. 30. Youth (1902) 5. 7.50 25. Typhoon (1903) 4. 5.50 16. Romance (1903) 5. 7.50 9. Nostromo (1904) 2.50 4.50 7.50 The Mirror of the Sea (1906) 5. 11. 15. A Set of Six (1908) 3. 7.50 10. Under Western Eyes (1911) 4.50 4.50 6. Some Reminiscences (1912) 4.50 9. 15. Chance (1913) 2. 5. 15. Victory (1915) 2. 2.50 4.25

[9] New York, Chas. Scribner's Sons, 1915, pp. 1-21.

[10] New York, Dodd, Mead & Co., 1916, pp. 192-217.

[11] Some English Story Tellers: A Book of the Younger Novelists; New York, Henry Holt & Co., 1912, pp. 1-30.

[12] A Disquisition on Conrad, Fortnightly Review, April, 1908.

[13] The Genius of Mr. Joseph Conrad, North American Review, June, 1904.

[14] Joseph Conrad: A Study; New York, Doubleday, Page & Co., 1914.

[15] Joseph Conrad; London, Nisbet & Co. (1916).



Sec. 1

Out of the desert of American fictioneering, so populous and yet so dreary, Dreiser stands up—a phenomenon unescapably visible, but disconcertingly hard to explain. What forces combined to produce him in the first place, and how has he managed to hold out so long against the prevailing blasts—of disheartening misunderstanding and misrepresentation, of Puritan suspicion and opposition, of artistic isolation, of commercial seduction? There is something downright heroic in the way the man has held his narrow and perilous ground, disdaining all compromise, unmoved by the cheap success that lies so inviting around the corner. He has faced, in his day, almost every form of attack that a serious artist can conceivably encounter, and yet all of them together have scarcely budged him an inch. He still plods along in the laborious, cheerless way he first marked out for himself; he is quite as undaunted by baited praise as by bludgeoning, malignant abuse; his later novels are, if anything, more unyieldingly dreiserian than his earliest. As one who has long sought to entice him in this direction or that, fatuously presuming to instruct him in what would improve him and profit him, I may well bear a reluctant and resigned sort of testimony to his gigantic steadfastness. It is almost as if any change in his manner, any concession to what is usual and esteemed, any amelioration of his blind, relentless exercises of force majeure, were a physical impossibility. One feels him at last to be authentically no more than a helpless instrument (or victim) of that inchoate flow of forces which he himself is so fond of depicting as at once the answer to the riddle of life, and a riddle ten times more vexing and accursed.

And his origins, as I say, are quite as mysterious as his motive power. To fit him into the unrolling chart of American, or even of English fiction is extremely difficult. Save one thinks of H. B. Fuller (whose "With the Procession" and "The Cliff-Dwellers" are still remembered by Huneker, but by whom else?[16]), he seems to have had no fore-runner among us, and for all the discussion of him that goes on, he has few avowed disciples, and none of them gets within miles of him. One catches echoes of him, perhaps, in Willa Sibert Cather, in Mary S. Watts, in David Graham Phillips, in Sherwood Anderson and in Joseph Medill Patterson, but, after all, they are no more than echoes. In Robert Herrick the thing descends to a feeble parody; in imitators further removed to sheer burlesque. All the latter-day American novelists of consideration are vastly more facile than Dreiser in their philosophy, as they are in their style. In the fact, perhaps, lies the measure of their difference. What they lack, great and small, is the gesture of pity, the note of awe, the profound sense of wonder—in a phrase, that "soberness of mind" which William Lyon Phelps sees as the hallmark of Conrad and Hardy, and which even the most stupid cannot escape in Dreiser. The normal American novel, even in its most serious forms, takes colour from the national cocksureness and superficiality. It runs monotonously to ready explanations, a somewhat infantile smugness and hopefulness, a habit of reducing the unknowable to terms of the not worth knowing. What it cannot explain away with ready formulae, as in the later Winston Churchill, it snickers over as scarcely worth explaining at all, as in the later Howells. Such a brave and tragic book as "Ethan Frome" is so rare as to be almost singular, even with Mrs. Wharton. There is, I daresay, not much market for that sort of thing. In the arts, as in the concerns of everyday, the American seeks escape from the insoluble by pretending that it is solved. A comfortable phrase is what he craves beyond all things—and comfortable phrases are surely not to be sought in Dreiser's stock.

I have heard argument that he is a follower of Frank Norris, and two or three facts lend it a specious probability. "McTeague" was printed in 1899; "Sister Carrie" a year later. Moreover, Norris was the first to see the merit of the latter book, and he fought a gallant fight, as literary advisor to Doubleday, Page & Co., against its suppression after it was in type. But this theory runs aground upon two circumstances, the first being that Dreiser did not actually read "McTeague," nor, indeed, grow aware of Norris, until after "Sister Carrie" was completed, and the other being that his development, once he began to write other books, was along paths far distant from those pursued by Norris himself. Dreiser, in truth, was a bigger man than Norris from the start; it is to the latter's unending honour that he recognized the fact instanter, and yet did all he could to help his rival. It is imaginable, of course, that Norris, living fifteen years longer, might have overtaken Dreiser, and even surpassed him; one finds an arrow pointing that way in "Vandover and the Brute" (not printed until 1914). But it swings sharply around in "The Epic of the Wheat." In the second volume of that incomplete trilogy, "The Pit," there is an obvious concession to the popular taste in romance; the thing is so frankly written down, indeed, that a play has been made of it, and Broadway has applauded it. And in "The Octopus," despite some excellent writing, there is a descent to a mysticism so fantastic and preposterous that it quickly passes beyond serious consideration. Norris, in his day, swung even lower—for example, in "A Man's Woman" and in some of his short stories. He was a pioneer, perhaps only half sure of the way he wanted to go, and the evil lures of popular success lay all about him. It is no wonder that he sometimes seemed to lose his direction.

Emile Zola is another literary father whose paternity grows dubious on examination. I once printed an article exposing what seemed to me to be a Zolaesque attitude of mind, and even some trace of the actual Zola manner, in "Jennie Gerhardt"; there came from Dreiser the news that he had never read a line of Zola, and knew nothing about his novels. Not a complete answer, of course; the influence might have been exerted at second hand. But through whom? I confess that I am unable to name a likely medium. The effects of Zola upon Anglo-Saxon fiction have been almost nil; his only avowed disciple, George Moore, has long since recanted and reformed; he has scarcely rippled the prevailing romanticism.... Thomas Hardy? Here, I daresay, we strike a better scent. There are many obvious likenesses between "Tess of the D'Urbervilles" and "Jennie Gerhardt" and again between "Jude the Obscure" and "Sister Carrie." All four stories deal penetratingly and poignantly with the essential tragedy of women; all disdain the petty, specious explanations of popular fiction; in each one finds a poetical and melancholy beauty. Moreover, Dreiser himself confesses to an enchanted discovery of Hardy in 1896, three years before "Sister Carrie" was begun. But it is easy to push such a fact too hard, and to search for likenesses and parallels that are really not there. The truth is that Dreiser's points of contact with Hardy might be easily matched by many striking points of difference, and that the fundamental ideas in their novels, despite a common sympathy, are anything but identical. Nor does one apprehend any ponderable result of Dreiser's youthful enthusiasm for Balzac, which antedated his discovery of Hardy by two years. He got from both men a sense of the scope and dignity of the novel; they taught him that a story might be a good one, and yet considerably more than a story; they showed him the essential drama of the commonplace. But that they had more influence in forming his point of view, or even in shaping his technique, than any one of half a dozen other gods of those young days—this I scarcely find. In the structure of his novels, and in their manner of approach to life no less, they call up the work of Dostoyevsky and Turgenev far more than the work of either of these men—but of all the Russians save Tolstoi (as of Flaubert) Dreiser himself tells us that he was ignorant until ten years after "Sister Carrie." In his days of preparation, indeed, his reading was so copious and so disorderly that antagonistic influences must have well-nigh neutralized one another, and so left the curious youngster to work out his own method and his own philosophy. Stevenson went down with Balzac, Poe with Hardy, Dumas fils with Tolstoi. There were even months of delight in Sienkiewicz, Lew Wallace and E. P. Roe! The whole repertory of the pedagogues had been fought through in school and college: Dickens, Thackeray, Hawthorne, Washington Irving, Kingsley, Scott. Only Irving and Hawthorne seem to have made deep impressions. "I used to lie under a tree," says Dreiser, "and read 'Twice Told Tales' by the hour. I thought 'The Alhambra' was a perfect creation, and I still have a lingering affection for it." Add Bret Harte, George Ebers, William Dean Howells, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and you have a literary stew indeed!... But for all its bubbling I see a far more potent influence in the chance discovery of Spencer and Huxley at twenty-three—the year of choosing! Who, indeed, will ever measure the effect of those two giants upon the young men of that era—Spencer with his inordinate meticulousness, his relentless pursuit of facts, his overpowering syllogisms, and Huxley with his devastating agnosticism, his insatiable questionings of the old axioms, above all, his brilliant style? Huxley, it would appear, has been condemned to the scientific hulks, along with bores innumerable and unspeakable; one looks in vain for any appreciation of him in treatises on beautiful letters.[17] And yet the man was a superb artist in works, a master-writer even more than a master-biologist, one of the few truly great stylists that England has produced since the time of Anne. One can easily imagine the effect of two such vigorous and intriguing minds upon a youth groping about for self-understanding and self-expression. They swept him clean, he tells us, of the lingering faith of his boyhood—a mediaeval, Rhenish Catholicism;—more, they filled him with a new and eager curiosity, an intense interest in the life that lay about him, a desire to seek out its hidden workings and underlying causes. A young man set afire by Huxley might perhaps make a very bad novelist, but it is a certainty that he could never make a sentimental and superficial one. There is no need to go further than this single moving adventure to find the genesis of Dreiser's disdain of the current platitudes, his sense of life as a complex biological phenomenon, only dimly comprehended, and his tenacious way of thinking things out, and of holding to what he finds good. Ah, that he had learned from Huxley, not only how to inquire, but also how to report! That he had picked up a talent for that dazzling style, so sweet to the ear, so damnably persuasive, so crystal-clear!

But the more one examines Dreiser, either as writer or as theorist of man, the more his essential isolation becomes apparent. He got a habit of mind from Huxley, but he completely missed Huxley's habit of writing. He got a view of woman from Hardy, but he soon changed it out of all resemblance. He got a certain fine ambition and gusto out of Balzac, but all that was French and characteristic he left behind. So with Zola, Howells, Tolstoi and the rest. The tracing of likenesses quickly becomes rabbinism, almost cabalism. The differences are huge and sprout up in all directions. Nor do I see anything save a flaming up of colonial passion in the current efforts to fit him into a German frame, and make him an agent of Prussian frightfulness in letters. Such childish gabble one looks for in the New York Times, and there is where one actually finds it. Even the literary monthlies have stood clear of it; it is important only as material for that treatise upon the patrioteer and his bawling which remains to be written. The name of the man, true enough, is obviously Germanic, and he has told us himself, in "A Traveler at Forty," how he sought out and found the tombs of his ancestors in some little town of the Rhine country. There are more of these genealogical revelations in "A Hoosier Holiday," but they show a Rhenish strain that was already running thin in boyhood. No one, indeed, who reads a Dreiser novel can fail to see the gap separating the author from these half-forgotten forbears. He shows even less of German influence than of English influence.

There is, as a matter of fact, little in modern German fiction that is intelligibly comparable to "Jennie Gerhardt" and "The Titan," either as a study of man or as a work of art. The naturalistic movement of the eighties was launched by men whose eyes were upon the theatre, and it is in that field that nine-tenths of its force has been spent. "German naturalism," says George Madison Priest, quoting Gotthold Klee's "Grunzuege der deutschen Literaturgeschichte" "created a new type only in the drama."[18] True enough, it has also produced occasional novels, and some of them are respectable. Gustav Frenssen's "Joern Uhl" is a specimen: it has been done into English. Another is Clara Viebig's "Das taegliche Brot," which Ludwig Lewisohn compares to George Moore's "Esther Waters." Yet another is Thomas Mann's "Buddenbrooks." But it would be absurd to cite these works as evidences of a national quality, and doubly absurd to think of them as inspiring such books as "Jennie Gerhardt" and "The Titan," which excel them in everything save workmanship. The case of Mann reveals a tendency that is visible in nearly all of his contemporaries. Starting out as an agnostic realist not unlike the Arnold Bennett of "The Old Wives' Tale," he has gradually taken on a hesitating sort of romanticism, and in one of his later books, "Koenigliche Hoheit" (in English, "Royal Highness") he ends upon a note of sentimentalism borrowed from Wagner's "Ring." Fraeulein Viebig has also succumbed to banal and extra-artistic purposes. Her "Die Wacht am Rhein," for all its merits in detail, is, at bottom, no more than an eloquent hymn to patriotism—a theme which almost always baffles novelists. As for Frenssen, he is a parson by trade, and carries over into the novel a good deal of the windy moralizing of the pulpit. All of these German naturalists—and they are the only German novelists worth considering—share the weakness of Zola, their Stammvater. They, too, fall into the morass that engulfed "Fecondite," and make sentimental propaganda.

I go into this matter in detail, not because it is intrinsically of any moment, but because the effort to depict Dreiser as a secret agent of the Wilhelmstrasse, told off to inject subtle doses of Kultur into a naive and pious people, has taken on the proportions of an organized movement. The same critical imbecility which detects naught save a Tom cat in Frank Cowperwood can find naught save an abhorrent foreigner in Cowperwood's creator. The truth is that the trembling patriots of letters, male and female, are simply at their old game of seeing a man under the bed. Dreiser, in fact, is densely ignorant of German literature, as he is of the better part of French literature, and of much of English literature. He did not even read Hauptmann until after "Jennie Gerhardt" had been written, and such typical German moderns as Ludwig Thoma, Otto Julius Bierbaum and Richard Dehmel remain as strange to him as Heliogabalus.

Sec. 2

In his manner, as opposed to his matter, he is more the Teuton, for he shows all of the racial patience and pertinacity and all of the racial lack of humour. Writing a novel is as solemn a business to him as trimming a beard is to a German barber. He blasts his way through his interminable stories by something not unlike main strength; his writing, one feels, often takes on the character of an actual siege operation, with tunnellings, drum fire, assaults in close order and hand-to-hand fighting. Once, seeking an analogy, I called him the Hindenburg of the novel. If it holds, then "The 'Genius'" is his Poland. The field of action bears the aspect, at the end, of a hostile province meticulously brought under the yoke, with every road and lane explored to its beginning, and every crossroads village laboriously taken, inventoried and policed. Here is the very negation of Gallic lightness and intuition, and of all other forms of impressionism as well. Here is no series of illuminating flashes, but a gradual bathing of the whole scene with white light, so that every detail stands out.

And many of those details, of course, are trivial; even irritating. They do not help the picture; they muddle and obscure it; one wonders impatiently what their meaning is, and what the purpose may be of revealing them with such a precise, portentous air.... Turn to page 703 of "The 'Genius.'" By the time one gets there, one has hewn and hacked one's way through 702 large pages of fine print—97 long chapters, more than 250,000 words. And yet, at this hurried and impatient point, with the coda already begun, Dreiser halts the whole narrative to explain the origin, nature and inner meaning of Christian Science, and to make us privy to a lot of chatty stuff about Mrs. Althea Jones, a professional healer, and to supply us with detailed plans and specifications of the apartment house in which she lives, works her tawdry miracles, and has her being. Here, in sober summary, are the particulars:

1. That the house is "of conventional design."

2. That there is "a spacious areaway" between its two wings.

3. That these wings are "of cream-coloured pressed brick."

4. That the entrance between them is "protected by a handsome wrought-iron door."

5. That to either side of this door is "an electric lamp support of handsome design."

6. That in each of these lamp supports there are "lovely cream-coloured globes, shedding a soft lustre."

7. That inside is "the usual lobby."

8. That in the lobby is "the usual elevator."

9. That in the elevator is the usual "uniformed negro elevator man."

10. That this negro elevator man (name not given) is "indifferent and impertinent."

11. That a telephone switchboard is also in the lobby.

12. That the building is seven stories in height.

In "The Financier" there is the same exasperating rolling up of irrelevant facts. The court proceedings in the trial of Cowperwood are given with all the exactness of a parliamentary report in the London Times. The speeches of the opposing counsel are set down nearly in full, and with them the remarks of the judge, and after that the opinion of the Appellate Court on appeal, with the dissenting opinions as a sort of appendix. In "Sister Carrie" the thing is less savagely carried out, but that is not Dreiser's fault, for the manuscript was revised by some anonymous hand, and the printed version is but little more than half the length of the original. In "The Titan" and "Jennie Gerhardt" no such brake upon exuberance is visible; both books are crammed with details that serve no purpose, and are as flat as ditch-water. Even in the two volumes of personal record, "A Traveler at Forty" and "A Hoosier Holiday," there is the same furious accumulation of trivialities. Consider the former. It is without structure, without selection, without reticence. One arises from it as from a great babbling, half drunken. On the one hand the author fills a long and gloomy chapter with the story of the Borgias, apparently under the impression that it is news, and on the other hand he enters into intimate and inconsequential confidences about all the persons he meets en route, sparing neither the innocent nor the obscure. The children of his English host at Bridgely Level strike him as fantastic little creatures, even as a bit uncanny—and he duly sets it down. He meets an Englishman on a French train who pleases him much, and the two become good friends and see Rome together, but the fellow's wife is "obstreperous" and "haughty in her manner" and so "loud-spoken in her opinions" that she is "really offensive"—and down it goes. He makes an impression on a Mlle. Marcelle in Paris, and she accompanies him from Monte Carlo to Ventimiglia, and there gives him a parting kiss and whispers, "Avril-Fontainebleau"—and lo, this sweet one is duly spread upon the minutes. He permits himself to be arrested by a fair privateer in Piccadilly, and goes with her to one of the dens of sin that suffragettes see in their nightmares, and cross-examines her at length regarding her ancestry, her professional ethics and ideals, and her earnings at her dismal craft—and into the book goes a full report of the proceedings. He is entertained by an eminent Dutch jurist in Amsterdam—and upon the pages of the chronicle it appears that the gentleman is "waxy" and "a little pedantic," and that he is probably the sort of "thin, delicate, well barbered" professor that Ibsen had in mind when he cast about for a husband for the daughter of General Gabler.

Such is the art of writing as Dreiser understands it and practises it—an endless piling up of minutiae, an almost ferocious tracking down of ions, electrons and molecules, an unshakable determination to tell it all. One is amazed by the mole-like diligence of the man, and no less by his exasperating disregard for the ease of his readers. A Dreiser novel, at least of the later canon, cannot be read as other novels are read—on a winter evening or summer afternoon, between meal and meal, travelling from New York to Boston. It demands the attention for almost a week, and uses up the faculties for a month. If, reading "The 'Genius,'" one were to become engrossed in the fabulous manner described in the publishers' advertisements, and so find oneself unable to put it down and go to bed before the end, one would get no sleep for three days and three nights.

Worse, there are no charms of style to mitigate the rigours of these vast steppes and pampas of narration. Joseph Joubert's saying that "words should stand out well from the paper" is quite incomprehensible to Dreiser; he never imitates Flaubert by writing for "la respiration et l'oreille." There is no painful groping for the inevitable word, or for what Walter Pater called "the gipsy phrase"; the common, even the commonplace, coin of speech is good enough. On the first page of "Jennie Gerhardt" one encounters "frank, open countenance," "diffident manner," "helpless poor," "untutored mind," "honest necessity," and half a dozen other stand-bys of the second-rate newspaper reporter. In "Sister Carrie" one finds "high noon," "hurrying throng," "unassuming restaurant," "dainty slippers," "high-strung nature," and "cool, calculating world"—all on a few pages. Carrie's sister, Minnie Hanson, "gets" the supper. Hanson himself is "wrapped up" in his child. Carrie decides to enter Storm and King's office, "no matter what." In "The Titan" the word "trig" is worked to death; it takes on, toward the end, the character of a banal and preposterous refrain. In the other books one encounters mates for it—words made to do duty in as many senses as the American verb "to fix" or the journalistic "to secure."...

I often wonder if Dreiser gets anything properly describable as pleasure out of this dogged accumulation of threadbare, undistinguished, uninspiring nouns, adjectives, verbs, adverbs, pronouns, participles and conjunctions. To the man with an ear for verbal delicacies—the man who searches painfully for the perfect word, and puts the way of saying a thing above the thing said—there is in writing the constant joy of sudden discovery, of happy accident. A phrase springs up full blown, sweet and caressing. But what joy can there be in rolling up sentences that have no more life and beauty in them, intrinsically, than so many election bulletins? Where is the thrill in the manufacture of such a paragraph as that in which Mrs. Althea Jones' sordid habitat is described with such inexorable particularity? Or in the laborious confection of such stuff as this, from Book I, Chapter IV, of "The 'Genius'"?:

The city of Chicago—who shall portray it! This vast ruck of life that had sprung suddenly into existence upon the dank marshes of a lake shore!

Or this from the epilogue to "The Financier":

There is a certain fish whose scientific name is Mycteroperca Bonaci, and whose common name is Black Grouper, which is of considerable value as an afterthought in this connection, and which deserves much to be better known. It is a healthy creature, growing quite regularly to a weight of two hundred and fifty pounds, and living a comfortable, lengthy existence because of its very remarkable ability to adapt itself to conditions....

Or this from his pamphlet, "Life, Art and America":[19]

Alas, alas! for art in America. It has a hard stubby row to hoe.

But I offer no more examples. Every reader of the Dreiser novels must cherish astounding specimens—of awkward, platitudinous marginalia, of whole scenes spoiled by bad writing, of phrases as brackish as so many lumps of sodium hyposulphite. Here and there, as in parts of "The Titan" and again in parts of "A Hoosier Holiday," an evil conscience seems to haunt him and he gives hard striving to his manner, and more than once there emerges something that is almost graceful. But a backsliding always follows this phosphorescence of reform. "The 'Genius,'" coming after "The Titan," marks the high tide of his bad writing. There are passages in it so clumsy, so inept, so irritating that they seem almost unbelievable; nothing worse is to be found in the newspapers. Nor is there any compensatory deftness in structure, or solidity of design, to make up for this carelessness in detail. The well-made novel, of course, can be as hollow as the well-made play of Scribe—but let us at least have a beginning, a middle and an end! Such a story as "The 'Genius'" is as gross and shapeless as Bruennhilde. It billows and bulges out like a cloud of smoke, and its internal organization is almost as vague. There are episodes that, with a few chapters added, would make very respectable novels. There are chapters that need but a touch or two to be excellent short stories. The thing rambles, staggers, trips, heaves, pitches, struggles, totters, wavers, halts, turns aside, trembles on the edge of collapse. More than once it seems to be foundering, both in the equine and in the maritime senses. The tale has been heard of a tree so tall that it took two men to see to the top of it. Here is a novel so brobdingnagian that a single reader can scarcely read his way through it....

1  2  3  4     Next Part
Home - Random Browse