CONTEMPORARY AMERICAN NOVELISTS
CARL VAN DOREN
The American Novel, published last year, undertook to trace the progress of a literary type in the United States from its beginnings to the end of the nineteenth century; Contemporary American Novelists undertakes to study the type as it has existed during the first two decades of the twentieth century. Readers of both volumes may note that in this later volume criticism has tended to supplant history. Only in writing of dead authors can the critic feel that any considerable portion of his task is done when he has arranged them in what he thinks their proper categories and their true perspective. In the case of living authors he has regularly to remember that he works with shifting materials, with figures whose dimensions and importance may be changed by growth, with persons who may desert old paths for new, reveal unsuspected attributes, increase or fade with the mere revolutions of time. All he can expect to do in dealing with any current type as fluid as the novel, is, seizing upon it at some specific moment, to examine the intentions and successes of outstanding or typical individuals and to make the most accurate report possible concerning them. Whatever general tendency there may be ought to appear from his examination.
The general tendency appearing most clearly among the novelists here studied is, of course, the drift of naturalism: initiated a full generation ago by several restless spirits, of whom E.W. Howe and Hamlin Garland are the most conspicuous survivors; continued by those young geniuses Stephen Crane, Frank Norris, Jack London, all dead before their time, and by Theodore Dreiser, Robert Herrick, Upton Sinclair, happily still alive; given a fresh impulse during the shaken years of the war and of the recovery from war by such satirists as Edgar Lee Masters and Sinclair Lewis and their companions in the new revolt. The intelligent American fiction of the century has to be studied—so far as the novel is concerned—largely in terms of its agreement or its disagreement with this naturalistic tendency, which has been powerful enough to draw Winston Churchill and Booth Tarkington into an approach to its practices, to drive James Branch Cabell and Joseph Hergesheimer into explicit dissent, and to throw into strong relief the balanced independence of Edith Wharton and Willa Cather. The year 1920, marking a peak in the triumph of one or two species of naturalism and in some ways closing a chapter, affords an admirable occasion to take stock. This book, indeed, was planned and begun at the close of that year and has firmly resisted the temptation to do more than glance at most of the work produced since then—even at the price of giving what must seem insufficient notice to The Triumph of the Egg and Three Soldiers and of giving none at all to that still more recent masterpiece Cytherea. While criticism pauses to take stock, creation steadily goes on.
Acknowledgments are due The Nation for permission to reprint from its pages those portions of the volume which have already been published there.
CARL VAN DOREN.
I OLD STYLE
1. Local Color 2. Romance
1. Hamlin Garland 2. Winston Churchill 3. Robert Herrick 4. Upton Sinclair 5. Theodore Dreiser
1. Booth Tarkington 2. Edith Wharton 3. James Branch Cabell 4. Willa Cather 5. Joseph Hergesheimer
IV NEW STYLE
1. Emergent Types
Ellen Glasgow, William Allen White, Ernest Poole, Henry B. Fuller, Mary Austin, Immigrants.
2. The Revolt from the Village
Edgar Lee Masters, Sherwood Anderson, E.W. Howe, Sinclair Lewis, Zona Gale, Floyd Dell, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Dorothy Canfield, 1921.
CONTEMPORARY AMERICAN NOVELISTS
1. LOCAL COLOR
A study of the American novel of the twentieth century must first of all take stock of certain types of fiction which continue to persist, with varying degrees of vitality and significance, from the last quarter of the century preceding.
There is, to begin with, the type associated with the now moribund cult of local color, which originally had Bret Harte for its prophet, and which, beginning almost at once after the Civil War, gradually broadened out until it saw priests in every state and followers in every county. Obedient to the example of the prophet, most of the practitioners of the mode chose to be episodic rather than epic in their undertakings; the history of local color belongs primarily to the historian of the short story. Even when the local colorists essayed the novel they commonly did little more than to expand some episode into elaborate dimensions or to string beads of episode upon an obvious thread. Hardly one of them ever made any real advance, either in art or reputation, upon his earliest important volume: George Washington Cable, after more than forty years, is still on the whole best represented by his Old Creole Days; and so—to name only the chief among the survivors—after intervals not greatly shorter are Mary N. Murfree ("Charles Egbert Craddock") by In the Tennessee Mountains, Thomas Nelson Page by In Ole Virginia, Mary E. Wilkins Freeman by A Humble Romance and Other Stories, James Lane Allen by Flute and Violin, and Alice Brown by Meadow-Grass.
The eager popular demand for these brevities does not entirely account for the failure of the type to go beyond its first experimental stage. The defects of local color inhere in the constitution of the cult itself, which, as its name suggests, thought first of color and then of form, first of the piquant surfaces and then—if at all—of the stubborn deeps of human life. In a sense, the local colorists were all pioneers: they explored the older communities as solicitously as they did the new, but they most of them came earliest in some field or other and found—or thought—it necessary to clear the top of the soil before they sank shaft or spade into it. Moreover, they accepted almost without challenge the current inhibitions of gentility, reticence, cheerfulness. They confined themselves to the emotions and the ideas and the language, for the most part, of the respectable; they disregarded the stormier or stealthier behavior of mankind or veiled it with discreet periphrasis; they sweetened their narratives wherever possible with a brimming optimism nicely tinctured with amiable sentiments. Poetic justice prospered and happy endings were orthodox. To a remarkable extent the local colorists passed by the immediate problems of Americans—social, theological, political, economic; nor did they frequently rise above the local to the universal. They were, in short, ordinarily provincial, without, however, the rude durability or the homely truthfulness of provincialism at its best.
To reflect upon the achievements of this dwindling cult is to discover that it invented few memorable plots, devised almost no new styles, created little that was genuinely original in its modes of truth or beauty, and even added but the scantiest handful of characters to the great gallery of the imagination. What local color did was to fit obliging fiction to resisting fact in so many native regions that the entire country came in some degree to see itself through literary eyes and therefore in some degree to feel civilized by the sight. This is, indeed, one of the important processes of civilization. But in this case it was limited in its influence by the habits of vision which the local colorists had. They scrutinized their world at the instigation of benevolence rather than at that of intelligence; they felt it with friendship rather than with passion. And because of their limitations of intelligence and passion they fell naturally into routine ways and both saw and represented in accordance with this or that prevailing formula. Herein they were powerfully confirmed by the pressure of editors and a public who wanted each writer to continue in the channel of his happiest success and not to disappoint them by new departures. Not only did this result in confining individuals to a single channel each but it resulted in the convergence of all of them into a few broad and shallow streams.
An excellent example may be found in the flourishing cycle of stories which, while Bret Harte was celebrating California, grew up about the life of Southern plantations before the war. The mood of most of these was of course elegiac and the motive was to show how much splendor had perished in the downfall of the old regime. Over and over they repeated the same themes: how an irascible planter refuses to allow his daughter to marry the youth of her choice and how true love finds a way; how a beguiling Southern maiden has to choose between lovers and gives her hand and heart to him who is stoutest in his adherence to the Confederacy; how, now and then, love crosses the lines and a Confederate girl magnanimously, though only after a desperate struggle with herself, marries a Union officer who has saved the old plantation from a marauding band of Union soldiers; how a pair of ancient slaves cling to their duty during the appalling years and will not presume upon their freedom even when it comes; how the gentry, though menaced by a riffraff of poor whites, nevertheless hold their heads high and shine brightly through the gloom; how some former planter and everlasting colonel declines to be reconstructed by events and passes the remainder of his years as a courageous, bibulous, orgulous simulacrum of his once thriving self. Mr. Page's In Ole Virginia and F. Hopkinson Smith's Colonel Carter of Cartersville in a brief compass employ all these themes; and dozens of books which might be named play variations upon them without really enlarging or correcting them. All of them were kindly, humorous, sentimental, charming; almost all of them are steadily fading out like family photographs.
The South, however, did not restrict itself wholly to its plantation cycle. In New Orleans Mr. Cable daintily worked the lode which had been deposited there by a French and Spanish past and by the presence still of Creole elements in the population. Yet he too was elegiac, sentimental, pretty, even when his style was most deft and his representations most engaging. Quaintness was his second nature; romance was in his blood. Bras-Coupe, the great, proud, rebellious slave in The Grandissimes, belongs to the ancient lineage of those African princes who in many tales have been sold to chain and lash and have escaped from them by dying. The postures and graces and contrivances of Mr. Cable's Creoles are traditional to all the little aristocracies surviving, in fiction, from some more substantial day. Yet in spite of these conventions his better novels have a texture of genuine vividness and beauty. In their portrayal of the manners of New Orleans they have many points of quiet satire and censure that betray a critical intelligence working seriously behind them. That critical disposition in Mr. Cable led him to disagree with the majority of Southerners regarding the justice due the Negroes; and it helped persuade him to spend the remainder of his life in a distant region.
The incident is symptomatic. While slavery still existed, public opinion in the South had demanded that literature should exhibit the institution only under a rosy light; public opinion now demanded that the problem in its new guise should still be glossed over in the old way. In neither era, consequently, could an honest novelist freely follow his observations upon Southern life in general. The mind of the herd bore down upon him and crushed him into the accepted molds. It seems a curious irony that the Negroes who thus innocently limited the literature of their section should have been the subjects of a little body of narrative which bids fair to outlast all that local color hit upon in the South. Joel Chandler Harris is not, strictly speaking, a contemporary, but Uncle Remus is contemporary and perennial. His stories are grounded in the universal traits of simple souls; they are also the whimsical, incidental mirror of a particular race during a significant—though now extinct—phase of its career. They are at once as ancient and as fresh as folk-lore.
Besides the rich planters and their slaves one other class of human beings in the South especially attracted the attention of the local colorists—the mountaineers. Certain distant cousins of this backwoods stock had come into literature as "Pikes" or poor whites in the Far West with Bret Harte and in the Middle West with John Hay and Edward Eggleston; it remained for Charles Egbert Craddock in Tennessee and John Fox in Kentucky to discover the heroic and sentimental qualities of the breed among its highland fastnesses of the Great Smoky and Cumberland Mountains. Here again formulas sprang up and so stifled the free growth of observation that, though a multitude of stories has been written about the mountains, almost all of them may be resolved into themes as few in number as those which succeeded nearer Tidewater: how a stranger man comes into the mountains, loves the flower of all the native maidens, and clashes with the suspicions or jealousies of her neighborhood; how two clans have been worn away by a long vendetta until only one representative of each clan remains and the two forgive and forget among the ruins; how a band of highlanders defend themselves against the invading minions of a law made for the nation at large but hardly applicable to highland circumstances; how the mountain virtues in some way or other prove superior to the softer virtues—almost vices by comparison—of the world of plains and cities. These formulas, however, resulted from another cause than the popular complacency which hated to be disturbed in Virginia and Louisiana. The mountain people, inarticulate themselves, have uniformly been seen from the outside and therefore have been studied in their surface peculiarities more often than in their deeper traits of character. And, having once entered the realm of legend, they continue to be known by the half-dozen distinguishing features which in legend are always enough for any type.
In the North and West, of course, much the same process went on as in the South among the local colorists, conditioned by the same demands and pressures. Because the territory was wider, however, in the expanding sections, the types of character there were somewhat less likely to be confined to one locality than in the section which for a time had a ring drawn round it by its past and by the difficulty of emerging from it; and because the career of North and West was not definitely interrupted by the war, the types of fiction there have persisted longer than in the South, where a new order of life, after a generation of clinging memories, has moved toward popular heroes of a new variety.
The cowboy, for instance, legitimate successor to the miners and gamblers of Bret Harte, might derive from almost any one of the states and might range over prodigious areas; it is partly accident, of course, that he stands out so sharply among the numerous conditions of men produced by the new frontier. Except on very few occasions, as in Alfred Henry Lewis's racy Wolfville stories and in Frederick Remington's vivid pictures, in Andy Adams's more minute chronicle The Log of a Cowboy, in Owen Wister's more sentimental The Virginian, and in O. Henry's more diversified Heart of the West and its fellows among his books, the cowboy has regularly moved on the plane of the sub-literary—in dime novels and, latterly, in moving pictures. He, like the mountaineer of the South, has himself been largely inarticulate except for his rude songs and ballads; formula and tradition caught him early and in fiction stiffened one of the most picturesque of human beings—a modern Centaur, an American Cossack, a Western picaro—into a stock figure who in a stock costume perpetually sits a bucking broncho, brandishes a six-shooter or swings a lariat, rounds up stampeding cattle, makes fierce war on Mexicans, Indians, and rival outfits, and ardently, humbly woos the ranchman's gentle daughter or the timorous school-ma'am. He still has no Homer, no Gogol, no Fenimore Cooper even, though he invites a master of some sort to take advantage of a thrilling opportunity.
The same fate of formula and tradition befell another type multiplied by the local novelists—the bad boy. His career may be said to have begun in New England, with Thomas Bailey Aldrich's reaction from the priggish manikins who infested the older "juveniles"; but Mark Twain took him up with such mastery that his subsequent habitat has usually been the Middle West, where a recognized lineage connects Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn with Mitch Miller and Penrod Schofield and their fellow-conspirators against the peace of villages. The bad boy, it must be noticed, is never really bad; he is simply mischievous. He serves as a natural outlet for the imagination of communities which are respectable but which lack reverence for solemn dignity. He can play the wildest pranks and still be innocent; he can have his adolescent fling and then settle down into a prudent maturity. Both the influence of Mark Twain and the local color tendency toward uniformity in type have held the bad boy to a path which, in view of his character, seems singularly narrow. In book after book he indulges in the same practical jokes upon parents, teachers, and all those in authority; brags, fibs, fights, plays truant, learns to swear and smoke, with the same devices and consequences; suffers from the same agonies of shyness, the same indifference to the female sex, the same awkward inclination toward particular little girls. For the most part, thanks to the formulas, he has been examined from the angle of adult irritation or amusement; only very recently—as by Edgar Lee Masters and Sherwood Anderson—has he been credited with a life and passions more or less his own and therefore as fully rounded as his stage of development permits.
The American business man, with millions of imaginations daily turned upon him, rarely appears in that fiction which sprang from local color except as the canny trader of some small town or as the ruthless magnate of some glittering metropolis. David Harum remains his rural avatar and The Letters from a Self-Made Merchant to His Son his most popular commentary. Doubtless the existence of this type in every community tends to warn off the searchers after local figures, who have preferred, in their fashion, to be monopolists when they could. Doubtless, also, the American business man has suffered from the critical light in which he has been studied by the reflective novelists. But though the higher grades of literature have refused to pay unstinted tribute and honor to men of wealth, the lower grades have paid almost as lavishly as life itself.
Multitudes of poor boys in popular fiction rise to affluence by the practice of the commercial virtues. To be self-made, the axiom tacitly runs, is to be well-made. Time was in the United States when the true hero had to start his career, unaided, from some lonely farm, from some widow's cottage, or from some city slum; and although, with the growth of luxury in the nation, readers have come to approve the heir who puts on overalls and works up in a few months from the bottom of the factory to the top, the standards of success are practically the same in all instances: sleepless industry, restless scheming, resistless will, coupled with a changeless probity in the domestic excellences. Nothing is more curious about the American business man of fiction than the sentimentality he displays in all matters of the heart. He may hold as robustly as he likes to the doctrine that business is business and that business and sympathy will not mix, but when put to the test he must always soften under the pleadings of distress and be malleable to the desires of mother, sweetheart, wife, or daughter. Even when a popular novelist sets out to be reflective—say, for example, Winston Churchill—he takes his hero up to the mountain of success and then conducts him down again to the valley of humiliation, made conscious that the love, after all, either of his family or of his society, is better than lucre. Theodore Dreiser's stubborn habit of presenting his rich men's will to power without abatement or apology has helped to keep him steadily suspected. The popular romancers have contrived to mingle passion for money and susceptibility to moralism somewhat upon the analogy of those lucky thaumaturgists who are able to eat their cake and have it too.
A similar mixture occurs in the politician of popular tradition. He hardly ever rises to the dimensions of statesmanship, and indeed rarely belongs to the Federal government at all: Washington has always been singularly neglected by the novelists. The American politician of fiction is essentially a local personage, the boss of ward or village. Customarily he holds no office himself but instead sits in some dusty den and dispenses injustice with an even hand. Candidates fear his influence and either truckle to him or advance against him with the weapons of reform—failing, as a rule, to accomplish anything. Aldermen and legislators are his creatures. His web is out in all directions: he holds this man's mortgage, knows that man's guilty secret, discovers the other's weakness and takes advantage of it. He is cynically illiterate and contemptuous of the respectable classes. If need be he can resort to outrageous violence to gain his ends. And yet, though the reflective novelists have all condemned him for half a century, he sits fast in ordinary fiction, where he is tolerated with the amused fatalism which in actual American life has allowed his lease to run so long. What justifies him is his success—his countrymen love success for its own sake—and his kind heart. Like Robin Hood he levies upon the plethoric rich for the deserving poor; and he yields to the tender entreaties of the widow and the orphan with amiable gestures.
The women characters evolved by the school of local color endure a serious restriction from the excessive interest taken by the novelists in the American young girl. Not only has she as a possible reader established the boundaries beyond which they might not go in speaking of sexual affairs but she has dominated the scene of their inventions with her glittering energy and her healthy bloodlessness. Some differences appear among the sections of the country as to what special phases of her character shall be here or there preferred: she is ordinarily most capricious in the Southern, most strenuous in the Western, most knowing in the New York, and most demure in the New England novels. Yet everywhere she considerably resembles a bright, cool, graceful boy pretending to be a woman. Coeducation and the scarcity of chaperons have made her self-possessed to a degree which mystifies readers not duly versed in American folkways. Though she plays at love-making almost from the cradle, she manages hardly ever to be scorched—a salamander, as one novelist suggests, sporting among the flames of life.
When native Victorianism was at its height, in the third quarter of the nineteenth century, she inclined to piety as her mode of preservation; at the present moment she inclines to a romping optimism which frightens away both thought and passion. From The Wide, Wide World to Pollyanna, however, she has taken habitual advantage of the reverence for the virgin which is one of the most pervasive elements in American popular opinion. That reverence has many charming and wholesome aspects; it has given young women a priceless freedom of movement in America without the penalty of being constantly suspected of sexual designs which they may not harbor. It must be remembered that the Daisy Millers who awaken unjust European gossip are understood at home, and that the understanding given them is a form of homage certainly no less honorable than the compliments of gallantry. In actual experience, however, girls grow up, whereas the popular fiction of the United States has done its best to keep them forever children. Nothing breaks the crystal shallows of their confidence. They are insolently secure in a world apparently made for them. The little difficulties which perturb their courtship are nine-tenths of them superficial and external matters, and the end comes as smoothly as a fairy tale's, before doubt has ever had an opportunity to shatter or passion the occasion to purge a spirit. From Hawthorne to the beginnings of naturalism there was hardly a single profound love story written in America. How could there be when green girls were the sole heroines and censors?
Among the older women created by the local color generation there were certain fashionable successes and social climbers in the large cities who have more complex fortunes than the young girls; but for the most part they are merely typical or conventional—as selfish as gold and as hard as agate. On somewhat humbler levels that generation—as Mary Austin has pointed out of American fiction at large—came nearer to reality by its representation of a type peculiar to the United States: the "woman" who is also a "lady"; that is, who combines in herself the functions both of the busy housewife and of the charming ornament of her society. The gradual reduction in America of the servant class has served to develop women who keep books and music beside them at their domestic tasks as pioneer farmers kept muskets near them in the fields. They devote to homely duties the time devoted by European ladies to love, intrigue, public affairs; they preserve, thanks to countless labor-saving devices, for more or less intellectual pursuits the strength which among European women is consumed by habitual drudgery. The combination of functions has probably done much to increase sexlessness and to decrease helplessness, and so to produce almost a new species of womanhood which is bound eventually to be of great moment in the national life. Local color, however, taking the species for granted, seems hardly to have been aware of its significant existence.
Only New England emphasized a distinct type: the old maid. She has been studied in that section as in no other quarter of the world. Expansion and emigration after the Civil War drew very heavily upon the declining Puritan stock; and naturally the young men left their native farms and villages more numerously than the young women, who remained behind and in many cases never married. Local fiction fell very largely into the hands of women—Harriet Beecher Stowe, Rose Terry Cooke, Sarah Orne Jewett, Mary E. Wilkins Freeman, Alice Brown—who broke completely with the age-old tradition of ridiculing spinsters no longer young. In the little cycles which these story-tellers elaborated the old maid is likely to be the center of her episode, studied in her own career and not merely in that of households upon which she is some sort of parasite. The heroine of Mrs. Freeman's A New England Nun is an illuminating instance: she has been betrothed to an absent, fortune-hunting lover for fourteen years, and now that he is back she finds herself full of consternation at his masculine habits and rejoices when he turns to another woman and leaves his first love to the felicity of her contented cell.
What in most literatures appears as a catastrophe appears in New England as a relief. Energy has run low in the calm veins of such women, and they have better things to do than to dwell upon the lives they might have led had marriage complicated them. Here genre painting reaches its apogee in American literature: quaint interiors scrupulously described; rounds of minute activity familiarly portrayed; skimpy moods analyzed with a delicate competence of touch. At the same time, New England literature was now too sentimental and now too realistic to allow all its old maids to remain perpetually sweet and passive. In its sentimental hours it liked to call up their younger days and to show them at the point which had decided or compelled their future loneliness—again and again discovering some act of abnegation such as giving up a lover because of the unsteadiness of his moral principles or surrendering him to another woman to whom he seemed for some reason or other to belong. In its realistic hours local color in New England liked to examine the atrophy of the emotions which in these stories often grows upon the celibate. One formula endlessly repeated deals with the efforts of some acrid spinster—or wife long widowed—to keep a young girl from marriage, generally out of contempt for love as a trivial weakness; the conclusion usually makes love victorious after a thunderbolt of revelation to the hinderer. There are inquiries, too, into the repressions and obsessions of women whose lives in this fashion or that have missed their flowering. Many of the inquiries are sympathetic, tender, penetrating, but most of them incline toward timidity and tameness. Their note is prevailingly the note of elegy; they are seen through a trembling haze of reticence. It is as if they had been made for readers of a vitality no more abundant than that of their angular heroines.
It would be possible to make a picturesque, precious anthology of stories dealing with the types and humors of New England. Different writers would contribute different tones: Sarah Orne Jewett the tone of faded gentility brooding over its miniature possessions in decaying seaport towns or in idyllic villages a little further inland; Mary E. Wilkins Freeman the tone of a stern honesty trained in isolated farms and along high, exposed ridges where the wind seems to have gnarled the dispositions of men and women as it has gnarled the apple trees and where human stubbornness perpetually crops out through a covering of kindliness as if in imitation of those granite ledges which everywhere tend to break through the thin soil; Alice Brown the tone of a homely accuracy touched with the fresh hues of a gently poetical temperament. More detailed in actuality than the stories of other sections, these New England plots do not fall so readily into formulas as do those of the South and West; and yet they have their formulas: how a stubborn pride worthy of some supreme cause holds an elderly Yankee to a petty, obstinate course until grievous calamities ensue; how a rural wife, neglected and overworked by her husband, rises in revolt against the treadmill of her dull tasks and startles him into comprehension and awkward consideration; how the remnant of some once prosperous family puts into the labor of keeping up appearances an amount of effort which, otherwise expended, might restore the family fortunes; how neighbors lock horns in the ruthless litigation which in New England corresponds to the vendettas of Kentucky and how they are reconciled eventually by sentiment in one guise or another; how a young girl—there are no Tom Joneses and few Hamlets in this womanly universe—grows up bright and sensitive as a flower and suffers from the hard, stiff frame of pious poverty; how a superb heroism springs out of a narrow life, expressing itself in some act of pitiful surrender and veiling the deed under an even more pitiful inarticulateness.
The cities of New England have been almost passed over by the local colorists; Boston, the capital of the Puritans, has singularly to depend upon the older Holmes or the visiting Howells of Ohio for its reputation in fiction. Ever since Hawthorne, the romancers and novelists of his native province have taken, one may say, to the fields, where they have worked much in the mood of Rose Terry Cooke, who called her best collection of stories Huckleberries to emphasize what she thought a true resemblance between the crops and characters of New England—"hardy, sweet yet spicy, defying storms of heat or cold with calm persistence, clinging to a poor soil, barren pastures, gray and rocky hillsides, yet drawing fruitful issues from scanty sources."
Alas that as time goes on the issues of such art seem less fruitful than once they seemed; that even Mrs. Freeman's Pembroke, one of the best novels of its class, lacks form and structure, and seems to encroach upon caricature in its study of the progress and consequences of Yankee pride. After a fecund generation of such stories Edith Wharton in Ethan Frome has surpassed all her native rivals in tragic power and distinction of language; Robert Frost has been able to distil the essence of all of them in three slender books of verse; Edwin Arlington Robinson in a few brief poems has created the wistful Tilbury Town and has endowed it with pathos at once more haunting and more lasting than that of any New England village chronicled in prose; it has remained for the Pennsylvanian Joseph Hergesheimer in Java Head to seize most artfully upon the riches of loveliness that survive from the hour when Massachusetts was at its noon of prosperity; and local color of the orthodox tradition now persists in New England hardly anywhere except around Cape Cod, of which Joseph C. Lincoln is the dry, quaint, amusing laureate.
Through the influence, in important measure, of Howells and the Atlantic Monthly the modes of fiction which were practised east of Albany extended their example to other districts also: to northern New York in Irving Bacheller; to Ohio in Mary S. Watts and Brand Whitlock; to Indiana in Meredith Nicholson; to Wisconsin in Zona Gale; to Iowa and Arkansas in Alice French ("Octave Thanet"); to Kansas in William Allen White; to the Colorado mines in Mary Hallock Foote; to the Virginias in Ellen Glasgow and Henry Sydnor Harrison; to Georgia in Will N. Harben; and to other neighborhoods in other neighborly chroniclers whose mere names could stretch out to a point beyond which critical emphasis would be lost. New York City clung to less tender and more incisive habits of fiction; that city's pace for local color was set by the deft, bright Richard Harding Davis, Henry Cuyler Bunner, Brander Matthews, O. Henry—all well known figures; by the late Herman Knickerbocker Viele, too little known, in whose novels, such as The Last of the Knickerbockers, affectionate accuracy is mated with smiling, graceful humor; and by David Gray, too little known, whose Gallops, concerned with the horsy parish of St. Thomas Equinus near New York City, contains the most amusing stories about fashionable sports which this republic has brought forth. In the Middle West Edgar Watson Howe and Hamlin Garland, and in the Far West Frank Norris and Jack London, broke with the customary tendency by turning away from pathos toward tragedy, and away from discreet benevolence toward emphatic candor. The prevailing school of naturalism has made its principal advance upon the passing school of local color by a sacrifice of genial neighborliness; no less exact and detailed in observation than their predecessors, the naturalists have insisted upon bringing criticism in and measuring the most amiable locality by wider standards. Here lies the essential point of difference between the old style and the new.
It is by reference to this point that the credit—such as it is—of being quite contemporary must be withheld from so earnest and varied a novelist as Margaret Deland. That theological agonies like those in John Ward, Preacher were actually suffered a generation back and that the book is a valuable document upon the times cannot explain away the fact that Mrs. Deland herself appears to have been partly overwhelmed by the storm which sweeps the parish of her story. So in her later novels which have essayed such problems as divorce, the compulsions of love, the inevitable clash of parents and children, she tugs at Gordian knots with the patient fingers of goodwill when one slash with the intelligence would cut her difficulties away. Suppose it possible, for instance, that the heroine of The Awakening of Helena Richie could have been courageous enough to go to her lover to await the death of her loathsome husband and then could have been so timid as to undergo the perturbations over her conduct which almost break her heart in Old Chester—suppose these contradictions might have dwelt together in Helena, yet could Mrs. Deland not have noted and anatomized them in a way to show that she saw the contradictions even while recording them? Suppose that Elizabeth in The Iron Woman was expected by her community to pay superfluously for an hour's blind folly with a lifetime of unhappiness and did undertake so to pay for it, yet could Mrs. Deland not have pointed out that the situation was repugnant both to ordinary common sense and to the very code of honor and stability which in the end persuades David and Elizabeth to give each other up?
The conclusions of these novels, which to thousands of readers have seemed stern and terrible, are in reality terrible chiefly because they are soft—soft with a sentimentalism swathed in folds of piety. The customs of Old Chester stifle its inhabitants, who take a kind of stolid joy in their fetters; and Mrs. Deland, with all her understanding, does not illuminate them. The movements of her imagination are cumbered by a too narrow—however charming—cage. Her excellence belongs to the hours when, not trying to transcend her little Pennsylvania universe, she brings accuracy and shrewdness and felicity to the chronicles of small beer in Old Chester Tales and Dr. Lavendar's People. These strictures and this praise she earns by her adherence to the parochial cult of local color.
If naturalism was a reaction from the small beer of local color, so, in another fashion, was the flare-up of romance which attended and succeeded the Spanish War. History was suddenly discovered to be wonderful no less than humble life; and so was adventure in the difficult quarters of the earth. That curious, that lush episode of fiction endowed American literature with a phalanx of "best sellers" some of which still continue to be sold, in diminished numbers; and it endowed the national tradition with a host of gallant personages and heroic incidents dug up out of old books or brought back from far quests by land or water. It remains, however, an episode; the rococo romancers did not last. Almost without exception they turned to other methods as the romantic mood faded out of the populace. Of those who had employed history for their substance only James Branch Cabell remained absolutely faithful, revising, strengthening, deepening his art with irony and beauty until it became an art exquisitely peculiar to himself.
Mary Johnston was as faithful, but her fidelity had less growth in it. Originally attracted to the heroic legend of colonial Virginia, she has since so far departed from it as to produce in the Long Roll and Cease Firing a wide panorama of the Civil War, in other books to study the historic plight and current unrest of women, and here and there to show an observant consciousness of the changing world; but her imagination long ago sank its deepest roots into the traditions of the Old Dominion. She brings to them, however, no fresh interpretations, as satisfied as any medieval romancer to ring harmonious changes on ancient themes, enlarging them, perhaps, with something spacious in her language and liberal in her sentiments, yet transmitting her material rather as a singer than as a poet, agreeably rather than creatively.
As Miss Johnston leans upon history for her favorite staff, so James Lane Allen leans upon "Nature." He is not, indeed, innocent of history. His Kentucky is always conscious of its chivalric past, and his most popular romance, The Choir Invisible, has its scene laid in and near the Lexington of the eighteenth century. Nor is he innocent of the devices of local color. His earliest collection of tales—Flute and Violin—and his ingratiating comment upon it—The Blue-Grass Region of Kentucky—once for all established the character which his chosen district has in the world of the imagination. But from the first he held principles of art which would not allow him to consider either history or local color as ends in themselves. He believed they must be employed, when employed, as elements contributory to some general effect of beauty or of meaning. He has built up beauty with the most deliberate hands, and he has sought to express the highest meanings in his art, seeking to look through the "thin-aired regions of consciousness which are ruled over by Tact to the underworld of consciousness where are situated the mighty workshops, and where toils on forever the cyclopean youth, Instinct."
In this important program, however, he has constantly been handicapped by his orthodoxies. John Gray, in The Choir Invisible, loving a woman who though in love with him is bound in marriage to another, engages himself to a young girl, shortly afterward to find that his real love is free again; yet with a high gesture of sacrifice he holds to his engagement and enters upon a union of duty which is sure to make two, and possibly three, persons unhappy instead of one, though all of them are equally guiltless. Mr. Allen approves of this immoral arithmetic with a sentimentalism which has drawn rains of tears down thoughtless cheeks. So in The Reign of Law he exhibits a youth extricating himself from an obsolete theology with sufferings which can be explained only on the ground that the theology was too strong ever to have been escaped or the youth too weak ever to have rebelled. And in Aftermath, sequel to A Kentucky Cardinal, the author sentimentally and quite needlessly stacks the cards against his hero and lets his heroine die, to bring, as he might say, "the eternal note of sadness in." All this to show how "Nature" holds men in her powerful hands and tortures them when they struggle to follow the mind to liberty! To prove a thesis so profoundly true and tragic Mr. Allen can do no more than borrow the tricks of melodrama.
Just how melodramatic his sentimentalism forces him to be has often been overlooked because of his diction and his pictures. Though he tends to the mellifluous and the saccharine he has in his better pages a dewy, luminous style, with words choicely picked out and cadences delicately manipulated. By comparison most of the local colorists of his period seem homespun and most of the romancers a little tawdry. His method is the mosaicist's, working self-consciously in fine materials. Movement with him never leaps nor flows; in fact, it seems to dawdle when, too often, he forgets to be vigilant in the interests of simplicity; it is languid with scrupulous hesitations and accumulations. As to his pictures, they come from a Kentucky glorified. When he says that in June there "the warm-eyed, bronzed, foot-stamping young bucks forsake their plowshares in the green rows, their reapers among the yellow beards; and the bouncing, laughing, round-breasted girls arrange their ribbons and their vows," Mr. Allen is remembering Theocritus, the Pervigilium Veneris, and the silver ages of literature no less than his own state and his own day. He uses local color habitually to ennoble it, and but for his extravagant taste for sweetness he might have achieved pastorals of an imperishable sort.
Even as it is, the Kentucky Cardinal-Aftermath story has all the quaint grace of pressed flowers and remembered valentines, and Summer in Arcady, his masterpiece, has at once rich passion and spare form. Here Mr. Allen is at his best, representing young love springing up fiercely, exuberantly, against a lovely background congenial to the human mood. He has not known, however, how to keep up that difficult equilibrium between artifice and simplicity which the idyl demands. His later books tend to be turgid, oppressive, cloying with sentimentalism and amorous obsessions in their graver moments, and in their lighter moments to fall flat from a lack of the true sinews of comedy.
Of a temper as different as possible from Mr. Allen's was Edgar Saltus, just dead, who stood alone and decadent in a country which the fin de siecle scarcely touched with its graceful, graceless maladies. He began his career, after a penetrating study of Balzac, with The Philosophy of Disenchantment and The Anatomy of Negation, erudite, witty challenges to illusion, deriving primarily from Hartmann and Schopenhauer but enriching their arguments with much inquisitive learning in current French philosophers and poets. Erudition, however, was not Saltus's sole equipment: his pessimism came, in part, from his literary masters but in part also from a temperament which steadily followed its own impulses and arrived at its own destinations. Cynical, deracinated, he turned from his speculative doubts to the positive realities of sense, becoming the historian of love and loveliness in sumptuous, perverse phases. In Mary Magdalen he dressed up a traditional courtesan in the splendors of purple and gold and perfumed her with many quaint, dangerous essences more exciting than her later career as penitent; in Imperial Purple he undertook a chronicle of the Roman emperors from Julius Caesar to Heliogabolus, exhibiting them in the most splendid of all their extravagances and sins; in Historia Amoris he followed the maddening trail of love and in The Lords of the Ghostland the saddening trail of faith through the annals of mankind.
He wrote novels, too, of contemporary life, but they are his least notable achievements. His personages in none of these novels manage to convince; his plots are melodrama; his worldly wisdom has smirks and postures in it; his style, now sharp now sagging, is unequal. Saltus could not, it seems, dispense with antiquity and remoteness in his books. Only when buried in the deep world of ancient story or when ranging through the widest field of time did he become most himself. Then he invited no comparisons with familiar actualities and could assemble the most magnificent glories according to his whims and could drape them in the most gorgeous stuffs. What especially touched his imagination was the spectacle of imperial Rome as interpreted to him by French decadence: that lust for power and sensation, those incredible temples, palaces, feasts, revelries, blasphemies, butcheries. Commencing with a beauty which knew no bounds, he moved on to lust or satiety or impotence for his theme; in the end he brought little but a glittering ferocity to that cold chronicle of the czars from Ivan to Catherine, The Imperial Orgy. His phrases never failed him, flashing like gems or snakes and clasping his exuberant materials in almost the only discipline they ever had. Wit withheld him from utter lusciousness. Though he employed Corinthian cadences and diction, he kept continually checking them with the cynic twist of some deft colloquialism. To venture into his microcosm is to bid farewell to all that is simple and kindly; it is, however, to discover the terrible beauty that lurks behind corruption, malevolent though delirious.
Romance of the traditionary sort, it is plain, has lately lost its vogue in the United States and is being neglected as at almost no other period since Fenimore Cooper established its principal native modes. The ancient romantic matters of the Settlement and the Revolution flourish almost solely in tales for boys. There is of course still a matter of the Frontier, but it is another frontier: the Canadian North and Northwest, Alaska, the islands of the South Seas, latterly the battle fields of France, and always the trails of American exploration wherever they may chance to lead. The performers upon such themes—the Rex Beaches, the Emerson Houghs, the Randall Parrishes, the Zane Greys, the James Oliver Curwoods—march ordinarily under the noisy banner of "red blood" and derive from Stephen Crane, Frank Norris, Jack London, those generous boys of naturalism whose temperaments carried them again and again into the territories of vivid danger. Criticism notes in the later annalists of "red blood" their spasmodic energy, their considerable technical knowledge, their stereotyped characters, their recurrent formulas, their uncritical, Rooseveltian opinions, their enormous popularity, their almost complete lack of distinction in style or attitude, and passes by without further obligation than to point out that Stewart Edward White probably deserves to stand first among them by virtue of a certain substantial range and panoramic faithfulness to the life of the lumbermen represented in his most successful book, The Blazed Trail.
This phase of life deserves particular emphasis for the reason that there has recently been growing up among the lumber-camps from the Bay of Fundy to Puget Sound the legend of a mythical hero named Paul Bunyan who is the only personage of the sort yet invented and elaborated by the ordinary run of men in any American calling. Paul is less a patron saint of the loggers than an autochthonous Munchausen, whose fame has been extended almost entirely by word of mouth among lumbermen resting from their work and vying with one another to see who could tell the most stupendous yarn about Paul's prowess and achievements. The process resembles that which in the folk everywhere has evolved enormous legends about favorite heroes; the legend concerning Paul, however, is essentially native in its accurate geography, in its passion for grotesque exaggeration, in its hilarious metaphors, in its dry, drawling, straight-faced narrative method. Exaggeration such as that in some of these stories verges upon genius. When Paul goes West he carelessly lets his pick drag behind him and cuts out the Grand Canyon of the Colorado; he raises corn in Kansas prodigious enough to suck the Mississippi dry and stop navigation; he builds a hotel so high that he has "the last seven stories put on hinges so's they could be swung back for to let the moon go by"; he achieves such feats of eating and drinking and working and fighting and loving as make Hercules himself seem a pallid fellow who should have gone upon the rowdy American frontier to learn the great ways of adventure. Though it is true that the legend has been developing for many years without adequate literary use of it having yet been made, it lies ready for romance to handle; and no discussion of contemporary American fiction can go deeper than the surfaces without at least mentioning that hilarious chapbook Paul Bunyan Comes West.
That romance is just now being slighted appears from the lamentable hiatus into which the fame of Charles D. Stewart has lately fallen. His Partners of Providence suffers from the inevitable comparison with Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn which it cannot stand, though it continues the saga of the Mississippi with sympathy and knowledge; but The Fugitive Blacksmith has a flavor which few comparisons and no neglect can spoil. Its protagonist, wrongly accused of a murder which he by mischance finds it difficult to explain, takes to his heels and lives by his mechanic wits among the villages of the lower Mississippi through a diversity of adventures which puts his story among the little masterpieces of the picaresque. Though it is clumsily garnished with irrelevant things, it stands out above them, racy, rememberable. The blacksmith has an ingenuity as varied as his experiences. Whereas other picaroes cheat or fight or love their ways, this hero uses his dexterity at unaccustomed trades until it is little less than intoxicating to see him rise to each emergency. He is a proletarian Odysseus, and his history is a quaint Odyssey of the roving artisan.
The matter of the Civil War, though very large in the American memory, has in literature not quite reached a parity with the older matters of the Settlement, the Revolution, and the Frontier, principally, no doubt, because there has been only one period—and that a brief one—of historical romance since the war. In connection with this matter, however, there has been created the legend which at present is surely the most potent of all the legendary elements dear to the American imagination.
Abraham Lincoln is, strictly speaking, more than a legend; he has become a cult. Immediately after his death he lived in the national mind for a time as primarily a martyr; then emphasis shifted to his humor and a whole literature of waggish tales and retorts and apologues assembled around his name; then he passed into a more sentimental zone and endless stories were multiplied about his natural piety and his habit of pardoning innocent offenders. Out of the efflorescence of all these aspects of legend which accompanied the centenary of his birth there has since seemed to be emerging—though the older aspects still persist as well—a conception of him as a figure at once lofty and familiar, at once sad and witty, at once Olympian and human. Among poets of all grades of opinion Lincoln is the chief native hero: Edwin Arlington Robinson has best expressed in words as firm as bronze the Master's reputation for lonely pride and forgiving laughter; John Gould Fletcher, with an eloquence found nowhere else in his work, likens Lincoln to a tree so mighty that its branches reach the heavens and its roots the primal rock and nations of men may rest in its shade; Edgar Lee Masters, whose work is full of the shadow and light of Lincoln, has made his most moving lyric an epitaph upon Ann Rutledge, the girl Lincoln loved and lost; and Vachel Lindsay, in Lincoln's own Springfield, during the World War thought of him as so stirred even in death by the horrors which then alarmed the universe that he could not sleep but walked up and down the midnight streets, mourning and brooding. It is precisely thus, in other ages, that saints are said to appear at difficult moments, to quiet the waves or turn the arrow aside. Without these more vulgar manifestations Lincoln nevertheless lives as the founder of every cult lives, in the echoes of his voice on many tongues and in the vibrations of his voice in many affections.
The novelists, unfortunately, fall behind the poets in the beauty and wisdom with which they celebrate the figure of Lincoln, though they have produced scores of volumes associated with it, upon the life not only of Lincoln himself but of his mother, of his children, of this or that friend or neighbor. Of the various novels—from Winston Churchill's The Crisis to Irving Bacheller's A Man for the Ages—which have sought to mingle the right proportions of rural shrewdness and honorable dignity, no one has yet been equal to the magnitude of its theme. They have followed the customary paths of the historical romance without seeming to realize that in a theme so spacious they could learn from the methods of Plato with Socrates, of Shakespeare with his kingly heroes, of the biographers of Francis of Assisi with their gracious saint.
Few literary tasks are harder than the task of the critic holding a steady course through the welter of novels which make a tumult in the world and trying to indicate those which have some genuine significance as works of art or intelligence or as documents upon the time. How shall he dispose, for example, of such beguilers of the millions as Gene Stratton Porter, who piles sentimentalism upon "Nature" till the soft heap defies analysis, and Harold Bell Wright, who cannily mixes sentimentalism with valor and prudence till the resultant blend tempts appetites uncounted? Popularity has its arts no less than excellence; and so has it its own kind of seriousness. Much as the advertiser and the salesman have done to market tons of Mrs. Porter and Mr. Wright, they could not have done it without the assistance furnished them by the fact that their authors believe and feel the things they write. They throb with all the popular impulses; they laugh when the multitude laughs and weep when it weeps; and they have the gift—which is really rare not common—of calling the multitude's attention to their books in which is displayed, as in a consoling mirror, the sweet, rosy, empty features of banality.
How shall the patient critic dispose of Robert W. Chambers, who, possessing in a high degree the qualities of narrative, of costume, of dramatic effectiveness, of satire even (as witness Iole), has drifted with the fashions for a generation and has latterly allowed himself to decline to the manufacture of literary sillibub in the guise of novels about the smart set and Bohemia? How shall the stern critic dispose of Gertrude Atherton, who knows so much about California, New York, and the international scene but who somehow fails to transmute her materials to any lasting metal and leaves the impression of a vexed aristocrat scolding the age without either convincing it or convicting it of very serious deficiencies? How shall the accurate critic dispose of Frank Harris, who was born in Ireland and who had the most conspicuous part of his career in England, but who is a naturalized American citizen and who has written in The Bomb a vivid and intelligent novel dealing with the Chicago "anarchists" of 1886? How shall the conscientious critic dispose of the Owen Johnsons and the Rupert Hugheses and the Gouverneur Morrises and the George Barr McCutcheons with all their energy and information and good intentions and yet with their fatal lack of true distinction?
How shall the tolerant critic dispose of the writers of detective stories whose name is legion and whose art is to fine fiction as arithmetic to calculus—particularly Arthur Reeve, inventor of that Craig Kennedy who with endless ingenuity solves problem after problem by the introduction of scientific and pseudoscientific novelties? How shall the puzzled critic dispose of Alice Duer Miller and her light, bright stories of fashionable life; of Edward Lucas White and his vast panoramas of South America and the ancient world; of Katherine Fullerton Gerould, with her grim tales and her petulant conservatism; of those energetic successors of O. Henry, Edna Ferber and Fanny Hurst; of the late Charles Emmet Van Loan, with his intimate knowledge of sport; of the schools and swarms of men and women who write short stories for the most part but who occasionally essay a novel? How shall the worried critic dispose of the more or less professional humorists who have created characters and localities: Irvin S. Cobb, who, capable of better things, prefers the paths of the grotesque and rolls his bulk through current literature laughing at his own misadventures; Finley Peter Dunne, inventor of that Mr. Dooley who makes it clear that the American tradition which invented Poor Richard is still alive; Ring W. Lardner, master of the racy vernacular of the almost illiterate; George Ade, easily first of his class, fabulist and satirist?
Perhaps it is best for the baffled critic to leave all of them to time and, singling out the ten living novelists who seem to him most distinguished or significant, to study them one by one, adding some account of the school of fiction just now predominant.
1. HAMLIN GARLAND
The pedigree of the most energetic and important fiction now being written in the United States goes unmistakably back to that creative uprising of discontent in the eighties of the last century which brought into articulate consciousness the larger share of the aspects of unrest which have since continued to challenge the nation's magnificent, arrogant grand march.
The decade had Henry Adams for its bitter philosopher, despairing over current political corruption and turning away to probe the roots of American policy under Jefferson and his immediate successors; had the youthful Theodore Roosevelt for its standard-bearer of a civic conscience which was, plans went, to bring virtue into caucuses; had Henry George for its spokesman of economic change, moving across the continent from California to New York with an argument and a program for new battles against privilege; had Edward Bellamy for its Utopian romancer, setting forth a delectable picture of what human society might become were the old iniquities reasonably wiped away and co-operative order brought out of competitive chaos; had William Dean Howells for its annalist of manners, turning toward the end of the decade from his benevolent acceptance of the world as it was to stout-hearted, though soft-voiced, accusations brought in the name of Tolstoy and the Apostles against human inequality however constituted; had—to end the list of instances without going outside the literary class—Hamlin Garland for its principal spokesman of the distress and dissatisfaction then stirring along the changed frontier which so long as free land lasted had been the natural outlet for the expansive, restless race.
Heretofore the prairies and the plains had depended almost wholly upon romance—and that often of the cheapest sort—for their literary reputation; Mr. Garland, who had tested at first hand the innumerable hardships of such a life, became articulate through his dissent from average notions about the pioneer. His earliest motives of dissent seem to have been personal and artistic. During that youth which saw him borne steadily westward, from his Wisconsin birthplace to windy Iowa and then to bleak Dakota, his own instincts clashed with those of his migratory father as the instincts of many a sensitive, unremembered youth must have clashed with the dumb, fierce urges of the leaders of migration everywhere. The younger Garland hungered on the frontier for beauty and learning and leisure; the impulse which eventually detached him from Dakota and sent him on a trepid, reverent pilgrimage to Boston was the very impulse which, on another scale, had lately detached Henry James from his native country and had sent him to the ancient home of his forefathers in the British Isles.
Mr. Garland could neither feel so free nor fly so far from home as James. He had, in the midst of his raptures and his successes in New England, still to remember the plight of the family he had left behind him on the lonely prairie; he cherished a patriotism for his province which went a long way toward restoring him to it in time. Sentimental and romantic considerations, however, did not influence him altogether in his first important work. He had been kindled by Howells in Boston to a passion for realism which carried him beyond the suave accuracy of his master to the somber veracity of Main-Travelled Roads, Prairie Folks, and Rose of Dutcher's Coolly. This veracity was more than somber; it was deliberate and polemic. Mr. Garland, ardently a radical of the school of Henry George, had enlisted in the crusade against poverty, and he desired to tell the unheeded truth about the frontier farmers and their wives in language which might do something to lift the desperate burdens of their condition. Consequently his passions and his doctrines joined hands to fix the direction of his art; he both hated the frontier and hinted at definite remedies which he thought would make it more endurable.
It throws a strong light upon the progress of American society and literature during the past generation to point out that the service recently performed by Main Street was, in its fashion, performed thirty years ago by Main-Travelled Roads. Each book challenges the myth of the rural beauties and the rural virtues; but whereas Sinclair Lewis, in an intellectual and satiric age, charges that the villagers are dull, Mr. Garland, in a moral and pathetic age, charged that the farmers were oppressed. His men wrestle fearfully with sod and mud and drought and blizzard, goaded by mortgages which may at almost any moment snatch away all that labor and parsimony have stored up. His women, endowed with no matter what initial hopes or charms, are sacrificed to overwork and deprivations and drag out maturity and old age on the weariest treadmill. The pressure of life is simply too heavy to be borne except by the ruthless or the crafty. Mr. Garland, though nourished on the popular legend of the frontier, had come to feel that the "song of emigration had been, in effect, the hymn of fugitives." Illusion no less than reality had tempted Americans toward their far frontiers, and the enormous mass, once under way, had rolled stubbornly westward, crushing all its members who might desire to hesitate or to reflect.
The romancers had studied the progress of the frontier in the lives of its victors; Mr. Garland studied it in the lives of its victims: the private soldier returning drably and mutely from the war to resume his drab, mute career behind the plow; the tenant caught in a trap by his landlord and the law and obliged to pay for the added value which his own toil has given to his farm; the brother neglected until his courage has died and proffered assistance comes too late to rouse him; and particularly the daughter whom a harsh father or the wife whom a brutal husband breaks or drives away—the most sensitive and therefore the most pitiful victims of them all. Mr. Garland told his early stories in the strong, level, ominous language of a man who had observed much but chose to write little. Not his words but the overtones vibrating through them cry out that the earth and the fruits of the earth belong to all men and yet a few of them have turned tiger or dog or jackal and snatched what is precious for themselves while their fellows starve and freeze. Insoluble as are the dilemmas he propounded and tense and unrelieved as his accusations were, he stood in his methods nearer, say, to the humane Millet than to the angry Zola. There is a clear, high splendor about his landscapes; youth and love on his desolate plains, as well as anywhere, can find glory in the most difficult existence; he might strip particular lives relentlessly bare but he no less relentlessly clung to the conviction that human life has an inalienable dignity which is deeper than any glamor goes and can survive the loss of all its trappings.
Why did Mr. Garland not equal the intellectual and artistic success of Main-Travelled Roads, Prairie Folks, and Rose of Dutcher's Coolly for a quarter of a century? At the outset he had passion, knowledge, industry, doctrine, approbation, and he labored hard at enlarging the sagas of which these books were the center. Yet Jason Edwards, A Spoil of Office, A Member of the Third House are dim names and the Far Western tales which succeeded them grow too rapidly less impressive as they grow older. The rise of historical romance among the American followers of Stevenson at the end of the century and the subsequent rise of flippancy under the leadership of O. Henry have both been blamed for the partial eclipse into which Mr. Garland's reputation passed. As a matter of fact, the causes were more fundamental than the mere fickleness of literary reputation or than the demands of editors and public that he repeat himself forever. In that first brilliant cycle of stories this downright pioneer worked with the material which of all materials he knew best and over which his imagination played most eagerly. From them, however, he turned to pleas for the single tax and to exposures of legislative corruption and imbecility about which he neither knew nor cared so much as he knew and cared about the actual lives of working farmers. His imagination, whatever his zeal might do in these different surroundings, would not come to the old point of incandescence.
Instead, however, of diagnosing his case correctly Mr. Garland followed the false light of local color to the Rocky Mountains and began the series of romantic narratives which further interrupted his true growth and, gradually, his true fame. He who had grimly refused to lend his voice to the chorus chanting the popular legend of the frontier in which he had grown up and who had studied the deceptive picture not as a visitor but as a native, now became himself a visiting enthusiast for the "high trails" and let himself be roused by a fervor sufficiently like that from which he had earlier dissented. In his different way he was as hungry for new lands as his father had been before him. Looking upon local color as the end—when it is more accurately the beginning—of fiction, he felt that he had exhausted his old community and must move on to fresher pastures.
Here the prime fallacy of his school misled him: he believed that if he had represented the types and scenes of his particular region once he had done all he could, when of course had he let imagination serve him he might have found in that microcosm as many passions and tragedies and joys as he or any novelist could have needed for a lifetime. Here, too, the prime penalty of his school overtook him: he came to lay so much emphasis upon outward manners that he let his plots and characters fall into routine and formula. The novels of his middle period—such as Her Mountain Lover, The Captain of the Gray Horse Troop, Hester, The Light of the Star, Cavanagh, Forest Ranger—too frequently recur to the romantic theme of a love uniting some powerful, uneducated frontiersman and some girl from a politer neighborhood. Pioneer and lady are always almost the same pair in varying costumes; the stories harp upon the praise of plains and mountains and the scorn of cities and civilization. These romances, much value as they have as documents and will long continue to have, must be said to exhibit the frontier as self-conscious, obstreperous, given to insisting upon its difference from the rest of the world. In ordinary human intercourse such insistence eventually becomes tiresome; in literature no less than in life there is a time to remember local traits and a time to forget them in concerns more universal.
What concerns of Mr. Garland's were universal became evident when he published A Son of the Middle Border. His enthusiasms might be romantic but his imagination was not; it was indissolubly married to his memory of actual events. The formulas of his mountain romances, having been the inventions of a mind not essentially inventive, had been at best no more than sectional; the realities of his autobiography, taking him back again to Main-Travelled Roads and its cycle, were personal, lyrical, and consequently universal. All along, it now appeared, he had been at his best when he was most nearly autobiographical: those vivid early stories had come from the lives of his own family or of their neighbors; Rose of Dutcher's Coolly had set forth what was practically his own experience in its account of a heroine—not hero—who leaves her native farm to go first to a country college and then to Chicago to pursue a wider life, torn constantly between a passion for freedom and a loyalty to the father she must tragically desert.
In a sense A Son of the Middle Border supersedes the fictive versions of the same material; they are the original documents and the Son the final redaction and commentary. Veracious still, the son of that border appears no longer vexed as formerly. Memory, parent of art, has at once sweetened and enlarged the scene. What has been lost of pungent vividness has its compensation in a broader, a more philosophic interpretation of the old frontier, which in this record grows to epic meanings and dimensions. Its savage hardships, though never minimized, take their due place in its powerful history; the defeat which the victims underwent cannot rob the victors of their many claims to glory. If there was little contentment in this border there was still much rapture. Such things Mr. Garland reveals without saying them too plainly: the epic qualities of his book—as in Mark Twain's Life on the Mississippi—lie in its implications; the tale itself is a candid narrative of his own adventures through childhood, youth, and his first literary period.
This autobiographic method, applied with success in A Daughter of the Middle Border to his later life in Chicago and all the regions which he visited, brings into play his higher gifts and excludes his lower. Under slight obligation to imagine, he runs slight risk of succumbing to those conventionalisms which often stiffen his work when he trusts to his imagination. Avowedly dealing with his own opinions and experiences, he is not tempted to project them, as in the novels he does somewhat too frequently, into the careers of his heroes. Dealing chiefly with action not with thought, he does not tend so much as elsewhere to solve speculative problems with sentiment instead of with reflection. In the Son and the Daughter he has the fullest chance to be autobiographic without disguise.
Here lies his best province and here appears his best art. It is an art, as he employs it, no less subtle than humane. Warm, firm flesh covers the bones of his chronology. He imparts reality to this or that occasion, like a novelist, by reciting conversation which must come from something besides bare memory. He rounds out the characters of the persons he remembers with a fulness and grace which, lifelike as his persons are, betray the habit of creating characters. He enriches his analysis of the Middle Border with sensitive descriptions of the "large, unconscious scenery" in which it transacted its affairs. If it is difficult to overprize the documentary value of his saga of the Garlands and the McClintocks and of their son who turned back on the trail, so is it difficult to overpraise the sincerity and tenderness and beauty with which the chronicle was set down.
2. WINSTON CHURCHILL
The tidal wave of historical romance which toward the end of the past century attacked this coast and broke so far inland as to inundate the entire continent swept Winston Churchill to a substantial peak of popularity to which he has since clung, with little apparent loss, by the exercise of methods somewhat but not greatly less romantic than those which first lifted him above the flood. He came during a moment of national expansiveness. Patriotism and jingoism, altruism and imperialism, passion and sentimentalism shook the temper which had been slowly stiffening since the Civil War. Now, with a rush of unaccustomed emotions, the national imagination sought out its own past, luxuriating in it, not to say wallowing in it.
In Mr. Churchill it found a romancer full of consolation to any who might fear or suspect that the country's history did not quite match its destiny. He had enough erudition to lend a very considerable "thickness" to his scene, whether it was Annapolis or St. Louis or Kentucky or upland New England. He had a sense for the general bearings of this or that epoch; he had a firm, warm confidence in the future implied and adumbrated by this past; he had a feeling for the ceremonial in all eminent occasions. He had, too, a knack at archaic costume and knack enough at the idiom in which his contemporaries believed their forebears had expressed themselves. And he had, besides all these qualities needed to make his records heroic, the quality of moral earnestness which imparted to them the look of moral significance. Richard Carvel by the exercise of simple Maryland virtues rises above the enervate young sparks of Mayfair; Stephen Brice in The Crisis by his simple Yankee virtues makes his mark among the St. Louis rebels—who, however, are gallant and noble though misguided men; canny David Ritchie in The Crossing leads the frontiersmen of Kentucky as the little child of fable leads the lion and the lamb; crafty Jethro Bass in Coniston, though a village boss with a pocketful of mortgages and consequently of constituents, surrenders his ugly power at the touch of a maiden's hand.
To reflect a little upon this combination of heroic color and moral earnestness is to discover how much Mr. Churchill owes to the elements injected into American life by Theodore Roosevelt. Is not The Crossing—to take specific illustrations—connected with the same central cycle as The Winning of the West? Is not Coniston, whatever the date of its events, an arraignment of that civic corruption which Roosevelt hated as the natural result of civic negligence and against which he urged the duty of an awakened civic conscience? In time Mr. Churchill was to extend his inquiries to regions of speculation into which Roosevelt never ventured, but as regards American history and American politics they were of one mind. "Nor are the ethics of the manner of our acquisition of a part of Panama and the Canal," wrote Mr. Churchill in 1918 in his essay on The American Contribution and the Democratic Idea, "wholly defensible from the point of view of international democracy. Yet it must be remembered that President Roosevelt was dealing with a corrupt, irresponsible, and hostile government, and that the Canal had become a necessity not only for our own development, but for that of the civilization of the world." And again: "The only real peril confronting democracy is the arrest of growth."
Roosevelt himself could not have muddled an issue better. Like him Mr. Churchill has habitually moved along the main lines of national feeling—believing in America and democracy with a fealty unshaken by any adverse evidence and delighting in the American pageant with a gusto rarely modified by the exercise of any critical intelligence. Morally he has been strenuous and eager; intellectually he has been naive and belated. Whether he has been writing what was avowedly romance or what was intended to be sober criticism he has been always the romancer first and the critic afterwards.
And yet since the vogue of historical romance passed nearly a score of years ago Mr. Churchill has honestly striven to keep up with the world by thinking about it. One novel after another has presented some encroaching problem of American civic or social life: the control of politics by interest in Mr. Crewe's Career; divorce in A Modern Chronicle; the conflict between Christianity and business in The Inside of the Cup; the oppression of the soul by the lust for temporal power in A Far Country; the struggle of women with the conditions of modern industry in The Dwelling-Place of Light. Nothing has hurried Mr. Churchill or forced his hand; he has taken two or three years for each novel, has read widely, has brooded over his theme, has reinforced his stories with solid documentation. He has aroused prodigious discussion of his challenges and solutions—particularly in the case of The Inside of the Cup. That novel perhaps best of all exhibits his later methods. John Hodder by some miracle of inattention or some accident of isolation has been kept in his country parish from any contact with the doubt which characterizes his age. Transferred to a large city he almost instantly finds in himself heresies hitherto only latent, spends a single summer among the poor, and in the fall begins relentless war against the unworthy rich among his congregation. Thought plays but a trivial part in Hodder's evolution. Had he done any real thinking or were he capable of it he must long before have freed himself from the dogmas that obstruct him. Instead he has drifted with the general stream and learns not from the leaders but from the slower followers of opinion. Like the politician he absorbs through his skin, gathering premonitions as to which way the crowd is going and then rushing off in that direction.
If this recalls the processes of Roosevelt, hardly less does it recall those of Mr. Churchill. Once taken by an idea for a novel he has always burned with it as if it were as new to the world as to him. Here lies, without much question, the secret of that genuine earnestness which pervades all his books: he writes out of the contagious passion of a recent convert or a still excited discoverer. Here lies, too, without much question, the secret of Mr. Churchill's success in holding his audiences: a sort of unconscious politician among novelists, he gathers his premonitions at happy moments, when the drift is already setting in. Never once has Mr. Churchill, like a philosopher or a seer, run off alone.
Even for those, however, who perceive that he belongs intellectually to a middle class which is neither very subtle nor very profound on the one hand nor very shrewd or very downright on the other, it is impossible to withhold from Mr. Churchill the respect due a sincere, scrupulous, and upright man who has served the truth and his art according to his lights. If he has not overheard the keenest voices of his age, neither has he listened to the voice of the mob. The sounds which have reached him from among the people have come from those who eagerly aspire to better things arrived at by orderly progress, from those who desire in some lawful way to outgrow the injustices and inequalities of civil existence and by fit methods to free the human spirit from all that clogs and stifles it. But as they aspire and intend better than they think, so, in concert with them, does Mr. Churchill.
In all his novels, even the most romantic, the real interest lies in some mounting aspiration opposed to a static regime, whether the passion for independence among the American colonies, or the expanding movement of the population westward, or the crusades against slavery or political malfeasance, or the extrication of liberal temperaments from the shackles of excessive wealth or poverty or orthodoxy. Yet the only conclusions he can at all devise are those which history has devised already—the achievement of independence or of the Illinois country, the abolition of slavery, the defeat of this or that usurper of power in politics. Rarely is anything really thought out. Compare, for instance, his epic of matrimony, A Modern Chronicle, with such a penetrating—if satirical—study as The Custom of the Country. Mrs. Wharton urges no more doctrine than Mr. Churchill, and she, like him, confines herself to the career of one woman with her successive husbands; but whereas the Custom is luminous with quiet suggestion and implicit commentary upon the relations of the sexes in the prevailing modes of marriage, the Chronicle has little more to say than that after two exciting marriages a woman is ready enough to settle peacefully down with the friend of her childhood whom she should have married in the beginning. In A Far Country a lawyer who has let himself be made a tool in the hands of nefarious corporations undergoes a tragic love affair, suffers conversion, reads a few books of modern speculation, and resolutely turns his face toward a new order. In the same precipitate fashion the heroine of The Dwelling-Place of Light, who has given no apparent thought whatever to economic problems except as they touch her individually, suffers a shock in connection with her intrigue with her capitalist employer and becomes straightway a radical, shortly thereafter making a pathetic and edifying end in childbirth. In these books there are hundreds of sound observations and elevated sentiments; the author's sympathies are, as a rule, remarkably right; but taken as a whole his most serious novels, however lifelike and well rounded their surfaces may seem, lack the upholding, articulating skeleton of thought.
Much the same lack of spiritual penetration and intellectual consistency which has kept Mr. Churchill from ever building a very notable realistic plot has kept him from ever creating any very memorable characters. The author of ten novels, immensely popular for more than a score of years, he has to his credit not a single figure—man or woman—generally accepted by the public as either a type or a person. With remarkably few exceptions he has seen his dramatis personae from without and—doubtless for that reason—has apparently felt as free to saw and fit them to his argument as he has felt with his plots. Something preposterous in the millionaire reformer Mr. Crewe, something cantankerous and passionate in the Abolitionist Judge Whipple of The Crisis, above all something both tough and quaint in the up-country politician Jethro Bass in Coniston resisted the argumentative knife and saved for those particular persons that look of being entities in their own right which distinguishes the authentic from the artificial characters of fiction.
For the most part, however, Mr. Churchill has erred in what may be called the arithmetic of his art: he has thought of men and women as mere fractions of a unit of fiction, whereas they themselves in any but romances must be the units and the total work the sum or product of the fictive operation. Naturally he has succeeded rather worse with characters of his own creating, since his conceptions in such cases have come to him as social or political problems to be illustrated in the conduct of beings suitably shaped, than in characters drawn in some measure from history, with their individualities already more or less established. Without achieving fresh or bold interpretations of John Paul Jones or George Rogers Clark or Lincoln, Mr. Churchill has added a good deal to the vividness of their legends; whereas in the case of characters not quite so historical, such as Judge Whipple and Jethro Bass, he has admirably fused his moral earnestness regarding American politics with his sense of spaciousness and color in the American past.
After the most careful reflection upon Mr. Churchill's successive studies of contemporary life one recurs irresistibly to his romances. He possesses, and has more than once displayed, a true romantic—almost a true epic—instinct. Behind the careers of Richard Carvel and Stephen Brice and David Ritchie and Jethro Bass appear the procession and reverberation of stirring days. Nearer a Walter Scott than a Bernard Shaw, Mr. Churchill has always been willing to take the memories of his nation as they have come down to him and to work them without question or rejection into his broad tapestry. A naturalistic generation is tempted to make light of such methods; they belong, however, too truly to good traditions of literature to be overlooked.
A national past has many uses, and different dispositions find in it instruction or warning, depression or exaltation. Mr. Churchill has found in the American past a cause for exaltation chiefly; after his ugliest chapters the light breaks and he closes always upon the note of high confidence which resounds in the epics of robust, successful nations. If in this respect he has too regularly flattered his countrymen, he has also enriched the national consciousness by the colors which he has brought back from his impassioned forays. Only now and then, it must be remembered, do historical novels pass in their original form from one generation to another; more frequently they suffer a decomposition due to their lack of essential truth and descend to the function of compost for succeeding harvests of romance. Though probably but one or two of Mr. Churchill's books—perhaps not even one—can be expected to outlast a generation with much vitality, he cannot be denied the honor of having added something agreeable if imponderable to the national memory and so of having served his country in one real way if not in another.