ESSAYS IN CONTEMPORARY CRITICISM
HENRY SEIDEL CANBY, Ph.D.
Editor of The Literary Review of The New York Evening Post, and a member of the English Department of Yale University.
The author wishes to acknowledge the courtesy of The Atlantic Monthly, Harper's Magazine, The Century Magazine, The Literary Review of The New York Evening Post, The Bookman, The Nation, and The North American Review for permission to reprint such of these essays as have appeared in their columns.
The unity of this book is to be sought in the point of view of the writer rather than in a sequence of chapters developing a single theme and arriving at categorical conclusions. Literature in a civilization like ours, which is trying to be both sophisticated and democratic at the same moment of time, has so many sources and so many manifestations, is so much involved with our social background, and is so much a question of life as well as of art, that many doors have to be opened before one begins to approach an understanding. The method of informal definition which I have followed in all these essays is an attempt to open doors through which both writer and reader may enter into a better comprehension of what novelists, poets, and critics have done or are trying to accomplish. More than an entrance upon many a vexed controversy and hidden meaning I cannot expect to have achieved in this book; but where the door would not swing wide I have at least tried to put one foot in the crack. The sympathetic reader may find his own way further; or may be stirred by my endeavor to a deeper appreciation, interest, and insight. That is my hope.
New York, April, 1922.
I. ON FICTION
SENTIMENTAL AMERICA FREE FICTION A CERTAIN CONDESCENSION TOWARD FICTION THE ESSENCE OF POPULARITY
II. ON THE AMERICAN TRADITION
THE AMERICAN TRADITION BACK TO NATURE THANKS TO THE ARTISTS TO-DAY IN AMERICAN LITERATURE: ADDRESSED TO THE BRITISH TIME'S MIRROR THE FAMILY MAGAZINE
III. THE NEW GENERATION
THE YOUNG ROMANTICS PURITANS ALL THE OLDER GENERATION A LITERATURE OF PROTEST BARBARIANS A LA MODE
IV. THE REVIEWING OF BOOKS
A PROSPECTUS FOR CRITICISM THE RACE OF REVIEWERS THE SINS OF REVIEWING MRS. WHARTON'S "THE AGE OF INNOCENCE" MR. HERGESHEIMER'S "CYTHEREA"
V. PHILISTINES AND DILETTANTE
POETRY FOR THE UNPOETICAL EYE, EAR, AND MIND OUT WITH THE DILETTANTE FLAT PROSE
VI. MEN AND THEIR BOOKS
CONRAD AND MELVILLE THE NOVELIST OF PITY HENRY JAMES THE SATIRIC RAGE OF BUTLER
DEFINING THE INDEFINABLE
The Oriental may be inscrutable, but he is no more puzzling than the average American. We admit that we are hard, keen, practical, —the adjectives that every casual European applies to us,—and yet any book-store window or railway news-stand will show that we prefer sentimental magazines and books. Why should a hard race—if we are hard—read soft books?
By soft books, by sentimental books, I do not mean only the kind of literature best described by the word "squashy." I doubt whether we write or read more novels and short stories of the tear-dripped or hyper-emotional variety than other nations. Germany is—or was—full of such soft stuff. It is highly popular in France, although the excellent taste of French criticism keeps it in check. Italian popular literature exudes sentiment; and the sale of "squashy" fiction in England is said to be threatened only by an occasional importation of an American "best-seller." We have no bad eminence here. Sentimentalists with enlarged hearts are international in habitat, although, it must be admitted, especially popular in America.
When a critic, after a course in American novels and magazines, declares that life, as it appears on the printed page here, is fundamentally sentimentalized, he goes much deeper than "mushiness" with his charge. He means, I think, that there is an alarming tendency in American fiction to dodge the facts of life— or to pervert them. He means that in most popular books only red- blooded, optimistic people are welcome. He means that material success, physical soundness, and the gratification of the emotions have the right of way. He means that men and women (except the comic figures) shall be presented, not as they are, but as we should like to have them, according to a judgment tempered by nothing more searching than our experience with an unusually comfortable, safe, and prosperous mode of living. Every one succeeds in American plays and stories—if not by good thinking, why then by good looks or good luck. A curious society the research student of a later date might make of it—an upper world of the colorless successful, illustrated by chance-saved collar advertisements and magazine covers; an underworld of grotesque scamps, clowns, and hyphenates drawn from the comic supplement; and all—red-blooded hero and modern gargoyle alike—always in good humor.
I am not touching in this picture merely to attack it. It has been abundantly attacked; what it needs is definition. For there is much in this bourgeois, good-humored American literature of ours which rings true, which is as honest an expression of our individuality as was the more austere product of antebellum New England. If American sentimentality does invite criticism, American sentiment deserves defense.
Sentiment—the response of the emotions to the appeal of human nature—is cheap, but so are many other good things. The best of the ancients were rich in it. Homer's chieftains wept easily. So did Shakespeare's heroes. Adam and Eve shed "some natural tears" when they left the Paradise which Milton imagined for them. A heart accessible to pathos, to natural beauty, to religion, was a chief requisite for the protagonist of Victorian literature. Even Becky Sharp was touched—once—by Amelia's moving distress.
Americans, to be sure, do not weep easily; but if they make equivalent responses to sentiment, that should not be held against them. If we like "sweet" stories, or "strong"—which means emotional—stories, our taste is not thereby proved to be hopeless, or our national character bad. It is better to be creatures of even sentimental sentiment with the author of "The Rosary," than to see the world only as it is portrayed by the pens of Bernard Shaw and Anatole France. The first is deplorable; the second is dangerous. I should deeply regret the day when a simple story of honest American manhood winning a million and a sparkling, piquant sweetheart lost all power to lull my critical faculty and warm my heart. I doubt whether any literature has ever had too much of honest sentiment.
Good Heavens! Because some among us insist that the mystic rose of the emotions shall be painted a brighter pink than nature allows, are the rest to forego glamour? Or because, to view the matter differently, psychology has shown what happens in the brain when a man falls in love, and anthropology has traced marriage to a care for property rights, are we to suspect the idyllic in literature wherever we find it? Life is full of the idyllic; and no anthropologist will ever persuade the reasonably romantic youth that the sweet and chivalrous passion which leads him to mingle reverence with desire for the object of his affections, is nothing but an idealized property sense. Origins explain very little, after all. The bilious critics of sentiment in literature have not even honest science behind them.
I have no quarrel with traffickers in simple emotion—with such writers as James Lane Allen and James Whitcomb Riley, for example. But the average American is not content with such sentiment as theirs. He wishes a more intoxicating brew, he desires to be persuaded that, once you step beyond your own experience, feeling rules the world. He wishes—I judge by what he reads—to make sentiment at least ninety per cent efficient, even if a dream- America, superficially resemblant to the real, but far different in tone, must be created by the obedient writer in order to satisfy him. His sentiment has frequently to be sentimentalized before he will pay for it. And to this fault, which he shares with other modern races, he adds the other heinous sin of sentimentalism, the refusal to face the facts.
This sentimentalizing of reality is far more dangerous than the romantic sentimentalizing of the "squashy" variety. It is to be found in sex-stories which carefully observe decency of word and deed, where the conclusion is always in accord with conventional morality, yet whose characters are clearly immoral, indecent, and would so display themselves if the tale were truly told. It is to be found in stories of "big business" where trickery and rascality are made virtuous at the end by sentimental baptism. If I choose for the hero of my novel a director in an American trust; if I make him an accomplice in certain acts of ruthless economic tyranny; if I make it clear that at first he is merely subservient to a stronger will; and that the acts he approves are in complete disaccord with his private moral code—why then, if the facts should be dragged to the light, if he is made to realize the exact nature of his career, how can I end my story? It is evident that my hero possesses little insight and less firmness of character. He is not a hero; he is merely a tool. In, let us say, eight cases out of ten, his curve is already plotted. It leads downward—not necessarily along the villain's path, but toward moral insignificance.
And yet, I cannot end my story that way for Americans. There must be a grand moral revolt. There must be resistance, triumph, and not only spiritual, but also financial recovery. And this, likewise, is sentimentality. Even Booth Tarkington, in his excellent "Turmoil," had to dodge the logical issue of his story; had to make his hero exchange a practical literary idealism for a very impractical, even though a commercial, utopianism, in order to emerge apparently successful at the end of the book. A story such as the Danish Nexo's "Pelle the Conqueror," where pathos and the idyllic, each intense, each beautiful, are made convincing by an undeviating truth to experience, would seem to be almost impossible of production just now in America.
It is not enough to rail at this false fiction. The chief duty of criticism is to explain. The best corrective of bad writing is a knowledge of why it is bad. We get the fiction we deserve, precisely as we get the government we deserve—or perhaps, in each case, a little better. Why are we sentimental? When that question is answered, it is easier to understand the defects and the virtues of American fiction. And the answer lies in the traditional American philosophy of life.
To say that the American is an idealist is to commit a thoroughgoing platitude. Like most platitudes, the statement is annoying because from one point of view it is indisputably just, while from another it does not seem to fit the facts. With regard to our tradition, it is indisputable. Of the immigrants who since the seventeenth century have been pouring into this continent a proportion large in number, larger still in influence, has been possessed of motives which in part at least were idealistic. If it was not the desire for religious freedom that urged them, it was the desire for personal freedom; if not political liberty, why then economic liberty (for this too is idealism), and the opportunity to raise the standard of life. And of course all these motives were strongest in that earlier immigration which has done most to fix the state of mind and body which we call being American. I need not labor the argument. Our political and social history support it; our best literature demonstrates it, for no men have been more idealistic than the American writers whom we have consented to call great. Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, Whitman—was idealism ever more thoroughly incarnate than in them?
And this idealism—to risk again a platitude—has been in the air of America. It has permeated our religious sects, and created several of them. It has given tone to our thinking, and even more to our feeling. I do not say that it has always, or even usually, determined our actions, although the Civil War is proof of its power. Again and again it has gone aground roughly when the ideal met a condition of living—a fact that will provide the explanation for which I seek. But optimism, "boosting," muck- raking (not all of its manifestations are pretty), social service, religious, municipal, democratic reform, indeed the "uplift" generally, is evidence of the vigor, the bumptiousness of the inherited American tendency to pursue the ideal. No one can doubt that in 1918 we believed, at least, in idealism. Nevertheless, so far as the average individual is concerned, with just his share and no more of the race-tendency, this idealism has been suppressed, and in some measure perverted. It is this which explains, I think, American sentimentalism.
Consider, for example, the ethics of conventional American society. The American ethical tradition is perfectly definite and tremendously powerful. It belongs, furthermore, to a population far larger than the "old American" stock, for it has been laboriously inculcated in our schools and churches, and impressively driven home by newspaper, magazine, and book. I shall not presume to analyze it save where it touches literature. There it maintains a definite attitude toward all sex-problems: the Victorian, which is not necessarily, or even probably, a bad one. Man should be chaste, and proud of his chastity. Woman must be so. It is the ethical duty of the American to hate, or at least to despise, all deviations, and to pretend—for the greater prestige of the law—that such sinning is exceptional, at least in America. And this is the public morality he believes in, whatever may be his private experience in actual living. In business, it is the ethical tradition of the American, inherited from a rigorous Protestant morality, to be square, to play the game without trickery, to fight hard but never meanly. Over-reaching is justifiable when the other fellow has equal opportunities to be "smart"; lying, tyranny—never. And though the opposites of all these laudable practices come to pass, he must frown on them in public, deny their rightness even to the last cock-crow— especially in the public press.
American political history is a long record of idealistic tendencies toward democracy working painfully through a net of graft, pettiness, sectionalism, and bravado, with constant disappointment for the idealist who believes, traditionally, in the intelligence of the crowd. American social history is a glaring instance of how the theory of equal dignity for all men can entangle itself with caste distinctions, snobbery, and the power of wealth. American economic history betrays the pioneer helping to kick down the ladder which he himself had raised toward equal opportunity for all. American literary history—especially contemporary literary history—reflects the result of all this for the American mind. The sentimental in our literature is a direct consequence.
The disease is easily acquired. Mr. Smith, a broker, finds himself in an environment of "schemes" and "deals" in which the quality of mercy is strained, and the wind is decidedly not tempered to the shorn lamb. After all, business is business. He shrugs his shoulders and takes his part. But his unexpended fund of native idealism—if, as is most probable, he has his share—seeks its due satisfaction. He cannot use it in business; so he takes it out in a novel or a play where, quite contrary to his observed experience, ordinary people like himself act nobly, with a success that is all the more agreeable for being unexpected. His wife, a woman with strange stirrings about her heart, with motions toward beauty, and desires for a significant life and rich, satisfying experience, exists in day-long pettiness, gossips, frivols, scolds, with money enough to do what she pleases, and nothing vital to do. She also relieves her pent-up idealism in plays or books—in high-wrought, "strong" novels, not in adventures in society such as the kitchen admires, but in stories with violent moral and emotional crises, whose characters, no matter how unlifelike, have "strong" thoughts, and make vital decisions; succeed or fail significantly. Her brother, the head of a wholesale dry-goods firm, listens to the stories the drummers bring home of night life on the road, laughs, says to himself regretfully that the world has to be like that; and then, in logical reaction, demands purity and nothing but aggressive purity in the books of the public library.
The hard man goes in for philanthropy (never before so frequently as in America); the one-time "boss" takes to picture-collecting; the railroad wrecker gathers rare editions of the Bible; and tens of thousands of humbler Americans carry their inherited idealism into the necessarily sordid experiences of life in an imperfectly organized country, suppress it for fear of being thought "cranky" or "soft," and then, in their imagination and all that feeds their imagination, give it vent. You may watch the process any evening at the "movies" or the melodrama, on the trolley-car or in the easy chair at home.
This philosophy of living which I have called American idealism is in its own nature sound, as is proved in a hundred directions where it has had full play. Suppressed idealism, like any other suppressed desire, becomes unsound. And here lies the ultimate cause of the taste for sentimentalism in the American bourgeoisie. An undue insistence upon happy endings, regardless of the premises of the story, and a craving for optimism everywhere, anyhow, are sure signs of a "morbid complex," and to be compared with some justice to the craving for drugs in an alcoholic deprived of liquor. No one can doubt the effect of the suppression by the Puritan discipline of that instinctive love of pleasure and liberal experience common to us all. Its unhealthy reaction is visible in every old American community. No one who faces the facts can deny the result of the suppression by commercial, bourgeois, prosperous America of our native idealism. The student of society may find its dire effects in politics, in religion, and in social intercourse. The critic cannot overlook them in literature; for it is in the realm of the imagination that idealism, direct or perverted, does its best or its worst.
Sentiment is not perverted idealism. Sentiment is idealism, of a mild and not too masculine variety. If it has sins, they are sins of omission, not commission. Our fondness for sentiment proves that our idealism, if a little loose in the waist-band and puffy in the cheeks, is still hearty, still capable of active mobilization, like those comfortable French husbands whose plump and smiling faces, careless of glory, careless of everything but thrift and good living, one used to see figured on a page whose superscription read, "Dead on the field of honor."
The novels, the plays, the short stories, of sentiment may prefer sweetness, perhaps, to truth, the feminine to the masculine virtues, but we waste ammunition in attacking them. There never was, I suppose, a great literature of sentiment, for not even "The Sentimental Journey" is truly great. But no one can make a diet exclusively of "noble" literature; the charming has its own cozy corner across from the tragic (and a much bigger corner at that). Our uncounted amorists of tail-piece song and illustrated story provide the readiest means of escape from the somewhat uninspiring life that most men and women are living just now in America.
The sentimental, however,—whether because of an excess of sentiment softening into "slush," or of a morbid optimism, or of a weak-eyed distortion of the facts of life,—is perverted. It needs to be cured, and its cure is more truth. But this cure, I very much fear, is not entirely, or even chiefly, in the power of the "regular practitioner," the honest writer. He can be honest; but if he is much more honest than his readers, they will not read him. As Professor Lounsbury once said, a language grows corrupt only when its speakers grow corrupt, and mends, strengthens, and becomes pure with them. So with literature. We shall have less sentimentality in American literature when our accumulated store of idealism disappears in a laxer generation; or when it finds due vent in a more responsible, less narrow, less monotonously prosperous life than is lived by the average reader of fiction in America. I would rather see our literary taste damned forever than have the first alternative become—as it has not yet—a fact. The second, in these years rests upon the knees of the gods.
All this must not be taken in too absolute a sense. There are medicines, and good ones, in the hands of writers and of critics, to abate, if not to heal, this plague of sentimentalism. I have stated ultimate causes only. They are enough to keep the mass of Americans reading sentimentalized fiction until some fundamental change has come, not strong enough to hold back the van of American writing, which is steadily moving toward restraint, sanity, and truth. Every honest composition is a step forward in the cause; and every clear-minded criticism.
But one must doubt the efficacy, and one must doubt the healthiness, of reaction into cynicism and sophisticated cleverness. There are curious signs, especially in what we may call the literature of New York, of a growing sophistication that sneers at sentiment and the sentimental alike. "Magazines of cleverness" have this for their keynote, although as yet the satire is not always well aimed. There are abundant signs that the generation just coming forward will rejoice in such a pose. It is observable now in the colleges, where the young literati turn up their noses at everything American,—magazines, best-sellers, or one-hundred-night plays,—and resort for inspiration to the English school of anti-Victorians: to Remy de Gourmont, to Anatole France. Their pose is not altogether to be blamed, and the men to whom they resort are models of much that is admirable; but there is little promise for American literature in exotic imitation. To see ourselves prevailingly as others see us may be good for modesty, but does not lead to a self-confident native art. And it is a dangerous way for Americans to travel. We cannot afford such sophistication yet. The English wits experimented with cynicism in the court of Charles II, laughed at blundering Puritan morality, laughed at country manners, and were whiffed away because the ideals they laughed at were better than their own. Idealism is not funny, however censurable its excesses. As a race we have too much sentiment to be frightened out of the sentimental by a blase cynicism.
At first glance the flood of moral literature now upon us—social- conscience stories, scientific plays, platitudinous "moralities" that tell us how to live—may seem to be another protest against sentimentalism. And that the French and English examples have been so warmly welcomed here may seem another indication of a reaction on our part. I refer especially to "hard" stories, full of vengeful wrath, full of warnings for the race that dodges the facts of life. H. G. Wells is the great exemplar, with his sociological studies wrapped in description and tied with a plot. In a sense, such stories are certainly to be regarded as a protest against truth-dodging, against cheap optimism, against "slacking," whether in literature or in life. But it would be equally just to call them another result of suppressed idealism, and to regard their popularity in America as proof of the argument which I have advanced in this essay. Excessively didactic literature is often a little unhealthy. In fresh periods, when life runs strong and both ideals and passions find ready issue into life, literature has no burdensome moral to carry. It digests its moral. Homer digested his morals. They transfuse his epics. So did Shakespeare.
Not so with the writers of the social-conscience school. They are in a rage over wicked, wasteful man. Their novels are bursted notebooks—sometimes neat and orderly notebooks, like Mr. Galsworthy's or our own Ernest Poole's, sometimes haphazard ones, like those of Mr. Wells, but always explosive with reform. These gentlemen know very well what they are about, especially Mr. Wells, the lesser artist, perhaps, as compared with Galsworthy, but the shrewder and possibly the greater man. The very sentimentalists, who go to novels to exercise the idealism which they cannot use in life, will read these unsentimental stories, although their lazy impulses would never spur them on toward any truth not sweetened by a tale.
And yet, one feels that the social attack might have been more convincing if free from its compulsory service to fiction; that these novels and plays might have been better literature if the authors did not study life in order that they might be better able to preach. Wells and Galsworthy also have suffered from suppressed idealism, although it would be unfair to say that perversion was the result. So have our muck-rakers, who, very characteristically, exhibit the disorder in a more complex and a much more serious form, since to a distortion of facts they have often enough added hypocrisy and commercialism. It is part of the price we pay for being sentimental.
If I am correct in my analysis, we are suffering here in America, not from a plague of bad taste merely, nor only from a lack of real education among our myriads of readers, nor from decadence— least of all, this last. It is a disease of our own particular virtue which has infected us—idealism, suppressed and perverted. A less commercial, more responsible America, perhaps a less prosperous and more spiritual America, will hold fast to its sentiment, but be weaned from its sentimentality.
What impresses me most in the contemporary short story as I find it in American magazines, is its curious sophistication. Its bloom is gone. I have read through dozens of periodicals without finding one with fresh feeling and the easy touch of the writer who writes because his story urges him. And when with relief I do encounter a narrative that is not conventional in structure and mechanical in its effects, the name of the author is almost invariably that of a newcomer, or of one of our few uncorrupted masters of the art. Still more remarkable, the good short stories that I meet with in my reading are the trivial ones,—the sketchy, the anecdotal, the merely adventurous or merely picturesque; as they mount toward literature they seem to increase in artificiality and constraint; when they propose to interpret life they become machines, and nothing more, for the discharge of sensation, sentiment, or romance. And this is true, so far as I can discover, of the stories which most critics and more editors believe to be successful, the stories which are most characteristic of magazine narrative and of the output of American fiction in our times.
I can take my text from any magazine, from the most literary to the least. In the stories selected by all of them I find the resemblances greater than the differences, and the latter seldom amount to more than a greater or a less excellence of workmanship and style. The "literary" magazines, it is true, more frequently surprise one by a story told with original and consummate art; but then the "popular" magazines balance this merit by their more frequent escape from mere prettiness. In both kinds, the majority of the stories come from the same mill, even though the minds that shape them may differ in refinement and in taste. Their range is narrow, and, what is more damning, their art seems constantly to verge upon artificiality.
These made-to-order stories (and this is certainly not too strong a term for the majority of them) are not interesting to a critical reader. He sticks to the novel, or, more frequently, goes to France, to Russia, or to England for his fiction, as the sales- list of any progressive publisher will show. And I do not believe that they are deeply interesting to an uncritical reader. He reads them to pass the time; and, to judge from the magazines themselves, gives his more serious attention to the "write-ups" of politics, current events, new discoveries, and men in the public eye,—to reality, in other words, written as if it were fiction, and more interesting than the fiction that accompanies it, because, in spite of its enlivening garb, it is guaranteed by writer and editor to be true. I am not impressed by the perfervid letters published by the editor in praise of somebody's story as a "soul-cure," or the greatest of the decade. They were written, I suppose, but they are not typical. They do not insult the intelligence as do the ridiculous puffs which it is now the fashion to place like a sickly limelight at the head of a story; but they do not convince me of the story's success with the public. Actually, men and women, discussing these magazines, seldom speak of the stories. They have been interested,—in a measure. The "formula," as I shall show later, is bound to get that result. But they have dismissed the characters and forgotten the plots.
I do not deny that this supposedly successful short story is easy to read. It is—fatally easy. And here precisely is the trouble. To borrow a term from dramatic criticism, it is "well made," and that is what makes it so thin, so bloodless, and so unprofitable to remember, in spite of its easy narrative and its "punch." Its success as literature, curiously enough for a new literature and a new race like ours, is limited, not by crudity, or inexpressiveness, but by form, by the very rigidity of its carefully perfected form. Like other patent medicines, it is constructed by formula.
It is not difficult to construct an outline of the "formula" by which thousands of current narratives are being whipped into shape. Indeed, by turning to the nearest textbook on "Selling the Short Story," I could find one ready-made. (There could be no clearer symptom of the disease I wish to diagnose than these many "practical" textbooks, with their over-emphasis upon technique and their under-estimate of all else that makes literature.) The story must begin, it appears, with action or with dialogue. A mother packs her son's trunk while she gives him unheeded advice mingled with questions about shirts and socks; a corrupt and infuriated director pounds on the mahogany table at his board meeting, and curses the honest fool (hero of the story) who has got in his way; or, "'Where did Mary Worden get that curious gown?' inquired Mrs. Van Deming, glancing across the sparkling glass and silver of the hotel terrace." Any one of these will serve as instance of the break-neck beginning which Kipling made obligatory. Once started, the narrative must move, move, move furiously, each action and every speech pointing directly toward the unknown climax. A pause is a confession of weakness. This Poe taught for a special kind of story; and this a later generation, with a servility which would have amazed that sturdy fighter, requires of all narrative. Then the climax, which must neatly, quickly, and definitely end the action for all time, either by a solution you have been urged to hope for by the wily author in every preceding paragraph, or in a way which is logically correct but never, never suspected. O. Henry is responsible for the vogue of the latter of these two alternatives,—and the strain of living up to his inventiveness has been frightful. Finally comes a last suspiration, usually in the advertising pages. Sometimes it is a beautiful descriptive sentence charged with sentiment, sometimes a smart epigram, according to the style of story, or the "line" expected of the author. Try this, as the advertisements say, on your favorite magazine. This formula, with variations which readers can supply for themselves or draw from textbooks on the short story, is not a wholly bad method of writing fiction. It is, I venture to assert, a very good one,—if you desire merely effective story-telling. It is probably the best way of making the short story a thoroughly efficient tool for the presentation of modern life. And there lies, I believe, the whole trouble. The short story, its course plotted and its form prescribed, has become too efficient. Now efficiency is all that we ask of a railroad, efficiency is half at least of what we ask of journalism; but efficiency is not the most, it is perhaps the least, important among the undoubted elements of good literature.
In order to make the short story efficient, the dialogue, the setting, the plot, the character development, have been squeezed and whittled and moulded until the means of telling the story fit the ends of the story-telling as neatly as hook fits eye. As one writer on how to manufacture short stories tells us in discussing character development, the aspirant must—
"Eliminate every trait or deed which does not help peculiarly to make the character's part in the particular story either intelligible or open to such sympathy as it merits;
"Paint in only the 'high lights,' that is...never qualify or elaborate a trait or episode, merely for the sake of preserving the effect of the character's full reality." And thus the story is to be subdued to the service of the climax as the body of man to his brain. But what these writers upon the short story do not tell us is that efficiency of this order works backward as well as forward. If means are to correspond with ends, why then ends must be adjusted to means. Not only must the devices of the story- teller be directed with sincerity toward the tremendous effect he wishes to make with his climax upon you and me, his readers; but the interesting life which it is or should be his purpose to write about for our delectation must be maneuvered, or must be chosen or rejected, not according to the limitation which small space imposes, but with its suitability to the "formula" in mind. In brief, if we are to have complete efficiency, the right kind of life and no other must be put into the short-story hopper. Nothing which cannot be told rapidly must be dropped in, lest it clog the smoothly spinning wheels. If it is a story of slowly developing incongruity in married life, the action must be speeded beyond probability, like a film in the moving pictures, before it is ready to be made into a short story. If it is a tale of disillusionment on a prairie farm, with the world and life flattening out together, some sharp climax must be provided nevertheless, because that is the only way in which to tell a story. Indeed it is easy to see the dangers which arise from sacrificing truth to a formula in the interests of efficiency.
This is the limitation by form; the limitation by subject is quite as annoying. American writers from Poe down have been fertile in plots. Especially since O. Henry took the place of Kipling as a literary master, ingenuity, inventiveness, cleverness in its American sense, have been squandered upon the short story. But plots do not make variety. Themes make variety. Human nature regarded in its multitudinous phases makes variety. There are only a few themes in current American short stories,—the sentimental theme from which breed ten thousand narratives; the theme of intellectual analysis and of moral psychology favored by the "literary" magazines; the "big-business" theme; the theme of American effrontery; the social-contrast theme; the theme of successful crime. Add a few more, and you will have them all. Read a hundred examples, and you will see how infallibly the authors— always excepting our few masters—limit themselves to conventional aspects of even these conventional themes. Reflect, and you will see how the first—the theme of sentiment—has overflowed its banks and washed over all the rest, so that, whatever else a story may be, it must somewhere, somehow, make the honest American heart beat more softly.
There is an obvious cause for this in the taste of the American public, which I do not propose to neglect. But here too we are in the grip of the "formula," of the idea that there is only one way to construct a short story—a swift succession of climaxes rising precipitously to a giddy eminence. For the formula is rigid, not plastic as life is plastic. It fails to grasp innumerable stories which break the surface of American life day by day and disappear uncaught. Stories of quiet homely life, events significant for themselves that never reach a burning climax, situations that end in irony, or doubt, or aspiration, it mars in the telling. The method which makes story-telling easy, itself limits our variety.
Nothing brings home the artificiality and the narrowness of this American fiction so clearly as a comparison, for better and for worse, with the Russian short story. I have in mind the works of Anton Tchekoff, whose short stories have now been translated into excellent English. Fresh from a reading of these books, one feels, it is true, quite as inclined to criticize as to praise. Why are the characters therein depicted so persistently disagreeable, even in the lighter stories? Why are the women always freckled, the men predominantly red and watery in the eye? Why is the country so flat, so foggy, so desolate; and why are the peasants so lumpish and miserable? Russia before the Revolution could not have been so dreary as this; the prevailing grimness must be due to some mental obfuscation of her writers. I do not refer to the gloomy, powerful realism of the stories of hopeless misery. There, if one criticizes, it must be only the advisability of the choice of such subjects. One does not doubt the truth of the picture. I mean the needless dinginess of much of Russian fiction, and of many of these powerful short stories.
Nevertheless, when one has said his worst, and particularly when he has eliminated the dingier stories of the collection, he returns with an admiration, almost passionate, to the truth, the variety, above all to the freedom of these stories. I do not know Russia or the Russians, and yet I am as sure of the absolute truth of that unfortunate doctor in "La Cigale," who builds up his heroic life of self-sacrifice while his wife seeks selfishly elsewhere for a hero, as I am convinced of the essential unreality, except in dialect and manners, of the detectives, the "dope-fiends," the hard business men, the heroic boys and lovely girls that people most American short stories. As for variety,— the Russian does not handle numerous themes. He is obsessed with the dreariness of life, and his obsession is only occasionally lifted; he has no room to wander widely through human nature. And yet his work gives an impression of variety that the American magazine never attains. He is free to be various. When the mood of gloom is off him, he experiments at will, and often with consummate success. He seems to be sublimely unconscious that readers are supposed to like only a few kinds of stories; and as unaware of the taboo upon religious or reflective narrative as of the prohibition upon the ugly in fiction. As life in any manifestation becomes interesting in his eyes, his pen moves freely. And so he makes life interesting in many varieties, even when his Russian prepossessions lead him far away from our Western moods.
Freedom. That is the word here, and also in his method of telling these stories. No one seems to have said to Tchekoff, "Your stories must move, move, move." Sometimes, indeed, he pauses outright, as life pauses; sometimes he seems to turn aside, as life turns aside before its progress is resumed. No one has ever made clear to him that every word from the first of the story must point unerringly toward the solution and the effect of the plot. His paragraphs spring from the characters and the situation. They are led on to the climax by the story itself. They do not drag the panting reader down a rapid action, to fling him breathless upon the "I told you so" of a conclusion prepared in advance.
I have in mind especially a story of Tchekoff's called "The Night Before Easter." It is a very interesting story; it is a very admirable story, conveying in a few pages much of Russian spirituality and more of universal human nature; but I believe that all, or nearly all, of our American magazines would refuse it; not because it lacks picturesqueness, or narrative suspense, or vivid characterization—all of these it has in large measure. They would reject it because it does not seem to move rapidly, or because it lacks a vigorous climax. The Goltva swollen in flood lies under the Easter stars. As the monk Jerome ferries the traveler over to where fire and cannon-shot and rocket announce the rising of Christ to the riotous monastery, he asks, "Can you tell me, kind master, why it is that even in the presence of great happiness a man cannot forget his grief?" Deacon Nicholas is dead, who alone in the monastery could write prayers that touched the heart. And of them all, only Jerome read his "akaphists." "He used to open the door of his cell and make me sit by him, and we used to read....His face was compassionate and tender—" In the monastery the countryside is crowding to hear the Easter service. The choir sings "Lift up thine eyes, O Zion, and behold." But Nicholas is dead, and there is none to penetrate the meaning of the Easter canon, except Jerome who toils all night on the ferry because they had forgotten him. In the morning, the traveler recrosses the Goltva. Jerome is still on the ferry. He rests his dim, timid eyes upon them all, and then fixes his gaze on the rosy face of a merchant's wife. There is little of the man in that long gaze. He is seeking in the woman's face the sweet and gentle features of his lost friend.
The American editor refuses such a story. There is no plot here, he says, and no "punch." He is wrong, although an imperfect abstract like mine cannot convict him. For the narrative presents an unforgettable portrait of wistful hero-worship, set in the dim mists of a Russian river against the barbaric splendor of an Easter midnight mass. To force a climax upon this poignant story would be to spoil it. And when it appears, as it will, in reprint, in some periodical anthology of current fiction, it will not fail to impress American readers.
But the American editor must have a climax which drives home what he thinks the public wants. If it is not true, so much the worse for truth. If it falsifies the story, well, a lying story with a "punch" is better than a true one that lacks a fire-spitting climax. The audience which judge a play by the effect of its "curtain," will not complain of a trifling illogicality in narrative, or a little juggling with what might happen if the story were life. Of what the editor wants I find a typical example in a recent number of a popular magazine. The story is well written; it is interesting until it begins to lie; moreover it is "featured" as one of the best short stories of the year. An American girl, brought up in luxury, has fed her heart with romantic sentiment. The world is a Christmas tree. If you are good and pretty and "nice," you have only to wait until you get big enough to shake it, and then down will come some present—respect from one's friends and family, perhaps a lover. And then she wakes up. Her father points out that she is pinching him by her extravagance. Nobody seems to want her kind of "nice-ness"; which indeed does no one much good. There is nothing that she can do that is useful in the world, for she has never learned. She begins to doubt the Christmas tree. There enters a man—a young electrical engineer, highly trained, highly ambitious, but caught in the wheels of a great corporation where he is merely a cog; wanting to live, wanting to love, wanting to be married, yet condemned to labor for many years more upon a salary which perhaps would little more than pay for her clothes. By an ingenious device they are thrown together in a bit of wild country near town, and are made to exchange confidences. So far, no one can complain of the truth of this story; and furthermore it is well told. Here are two products of our social machine, both true to type. Suppose they want to marry? What can we do about it? The story-teller has posed his question with a force not to be denied.
But I wish we had had a Tchekoff to answer it. As for this author, he leads his characters to a conveniently deserted house, lights a fire on the hearth, sets water boiling for tea, and in a few pages of charming romance would persuade us that with a few economies in this rural residence, true love may have its course and a successful marriage crown the morning's adventure. Thus in one dazzling sweep, the greatest and most sugary plum of all drops from the very tip of the Christmas tree into the lap of the lady, who had just learned that happiness in the real world comes in no such haphazard and undeserved a fashion. Really! have we degenerated from Lincoln's day? Is it easy now to fool all of us all of the time, so that a tale-teller dares to expose silly romance at the beginning of his story, and yet dose us with it at the end? Not that one objects to romance. It is as necessary as food, and almost as valuable. But romance that pretends to be realism, realism that fizzles out into sentimental romance—is there any excuse for that? Even if it provides "heart interest" and an effective climax?
The truth is, of course, that the Russian stories are based upon life; the typical stories of the American magazines, for all their realistic details, are too often studied, not from American life but from literary convention. Even when their substance is fresh, their unfoldings and above all their solutions are second-hand. If the Russian authors could write American stories I believe that their work would be more truly popular than what we are now getting. They would be free to be interesting in any direction and by any method. The writer of the American short story is not free.
I should like to leave the subject here with a comparison that any reader can make for himself. But American pride recalls the past glory of our short story, and common knowledge indicates the present reality of a few authors—several of them women—who are writing fiction of which any race might be proud. The optimist cannot resist meditating on the way out for our enslaved short story.
The ultimate responsibility for its present position must fall, I suppose, upon our American taste, which, when taken by and large, is unquestionably crude, easily satisfied, and not sensitive to good things. American taste does not rebel against the "formula." If interest is pricked it does not inquire too curiously into the nature of the goad. American taste is partial to sentiment, and antagonistic to themes that fail to present the American in the light of optimistic romance. But our defects in taste are slowly but certainly being remedied. The schools are at work upon them; journalism, for all its noisy vulgarity, is at work upon them. Our taste in art, our taste in poetry, our taste in architecture, our taste in music go up, as our taste in magazine fiction seems to go down.
But what are the writers of short stories and what are the editors and publishers doing to help taste improve itself until, as Henry James says, it acquires a keener relish than ever before?
It profits nothing to attack the American writer. He does, it may fairly be assumed, what he can, and I do not wish to discuss here the responsibility of the public for his deficiencies. The editor and the publisher, however, stand in a somewhat different relationship to the American short story. They may assert with much justice that they are public servants merely; nevertheless they do control the organs of literary expression, and it is through them that any positive influence on the side of restriction or proscription must be exerted, whatever may be its ultimate source. If a lack of freedom in method and in choice of subject is one reason for the sophistication of our short story, then the editorial policy of American magazines is a legitimate field for speculation.
I can reason only from the evidence of the product and the testimony of authors, successful and unsuccessful. Yet one conclusion springs to the eye, and is enough in itself to justify investigation. The critical basis upon which the American editor professes to build his magazine is of doubtful validity. I believe that it is unsound. His policy, as stated in "editorial announcements" and confirmed by his advertisements of the material he selects, is first to find out what the public wants, and next to supply it. This is reasonable in appearance. It would seem to be good commercially, and, as a policy, I should consider it good for art, which must consult the popular taste or lose its vitality. But a pitfall lies between this theory of editorial selection and its successful practice. The editor must really know what the public wants. If he does not, he becomes a dogmatic critic of a very dangerous school.
Those who know the theater and its playwrights, are agreed that the dramatic manager, at least in America, is a very poor judge of what the public desires. The percentage of bad guesses in every metropolitan season is said to be very high. Is the editor more competent? It would seem that he is, to judge from the stability of our popular magazines. But that he follows the public taste with any certainty of judgment is rendered unlikely, not only by inherent improbability, but also by three specific facts: the tiresome succession of like stories which follow unendingly in the wake of every popular success; the palpable fear of the editor to attempt innovation, experiment, or leadership; and the general complaint against "magazine stories." In truth, the American editor plays safe, constantly and from conviction; and playing safe in the short story means the adoption of the "formula," which is sure to be somewhat successful; it means restriction to a few safe themes. He swings from the detective story to the tale of the alien, from the "heart-interest" story to the narrative of "big business." When, as has happened recently, a magazine experimented with eroticism, and found it successful, the initiative of itseditor was felt to be worthy of general remark.
If one reduces this imperfect sketch of existing conditions to terms of literary criticism, the result is interesting. There are two great schools of criticism: the judicial and the impressionistic. The judicial critic—a Boileau, a Matthew Arnold—bases his criticism upon fundamental principles. The impressionistic critic follows the now hackneyed advice of Anatole France, to let his soul adventure among masterpieces, and seeks the reaction for good or bad of a given work upon his own finely strung mind. The first group must be sure of the breadth, the soundness, and the just application of their principles. The second group must depend upon their own good taste.
The American editor has flung aside as archaic the fundamental principles of criticism upon which judicial critics have based their opinions. And yet he has chosen to be dogmatic. He has transformed his guess as to what the public wants into a fundamental principle, and acted upon it with the confidence of an Aristotle. He asserts freely and frankly that, in his private capacity, such and such a story pleases him, is good (privately he is an impressionist and holds opinions far more valid than his editorial judgment, since they are founded upon taste and not upon intuition merely); but that "the public will not like it," or "in our rivalry with seventy other magazines we cannot afford to print this excellent work." He is frequently right. He is also frequently wrong.
I speak not from personal experience, since other reasons in my own case have usually, though not always, led me to agree with the editor's verdict, when it has been unfavorable; but from the broader testimony of many writers, the indisputable evidence of works thus rejected which have later attained success, and the failure of American short fiction to impress permanently the reading public. Based upon an intuition of the public mind, changing with the wind,—always after, never before it,—such editorial judgment, indeed, must be of doubtful validity; must lead in many instances to unwise and unprofitable restrictions upon originality in fiction.
I am well aware that it is useless to consider current American literature without regard to the multitude of readers who, being, like all multitude, mediocre, demand the mediocre in literature. And I know that it is equally foolish to neglect the popular elements in the developing American genius—that genius which is so colloquial now, and yet so inventive; so vulgar sometimes, and yet, when sophistication is not forced upon it, so fresh. I have no wish to evade the necessity for consulting the wishes and the taste of the public, which good sense and commercial necessity alike impose upon the editor. I would not have the American editor less practical, less sensitive to the popular wave; I would have him more so. But I would have him less dogmatic. All forms of dogmatism are dangerous for men whose business it is to publish, not to criticize, contemporary literature. But an unsound and arbitrary dogmatism is the worst. If the editor is to give the people what they want instead of what they have wanted, he must have more confidence in himself, and more belief in their capacity for liking the good. He should be dogmatic only where he can be sure. Elsewhere let him follow the method of science, and experiment. He should trust to his taste in practice as well as in private theory, and let the results of such criticism sometimes, at least, dominate his choice.
In both our "popular" and our "literary" magazines, freer fiction would follow upon better criticism. The readers of the "literary" magazines are already seeking foreign-made narratives, and neglecting the American short story built for them according to the standardized model. The readers of the "popular" magazines want chiefly journalism (an utterly different thing from literature); and that they are getting in good measure in the non- fiction and part-fiction sections of the magazines. But they also seek, as all men seek, some literature. If, instead of imposing the "formula" (which is, after all, a journalistic mechanism—and a good one—adapted for speedy and evanescent effects), if, instead of imposing the "formula" upon all the subjects they propose to have turned into fiction, the editors of these magazines should also experiment, should release some subjects from the tyranny of the "formula," and admit others which its cult has kept out, the result might be surprising. It is true that the masses have no taste for literature,—as a steady diet; it is still more certain that not even the most mediocre of multitudes can be permanently hoodwinked by formula.
But the magazines can take care of themselves; it is the short story in which I am chiefly interested. Better criticism and greater freedom for fiction might vitalize our overabundant, unoriginal, unreal, unversatile,—everything but unformed short story. Its artifice might again become art. Even the more careful, the more artistic work leaves one with the impression that these stories have sought a "line," and found an acceptable formula. And when one thinks of the multitudinous situations, impressions, incidents in this fascinating whirl of modern life, incapable perhaps of presentation in a novel because of their very impermanence, admirably adapted to the short story because of their vividness and their deep if narrow significance, the voice of protest must go up against any artificial, arbitrary limitations upon the art. Freedom to make his appeal to the public with any subject not morbid or indecent, is all the writer can ask. Freedom to publish sometimes what the editor likes and the public may like, instead of what the editor approves because the public has liked it, is all that he needs. There is plenty of blood in the American short story yet, though I have read through whole magazines without finding a drop of it.
When we give literature in America the same opportunity to invent, to experiment, that we have already given journalism, there will be more legitimate successors to Irving, to Hawthorne, to Poe and Bret Harte. There will be more writers, like O. Henry, who write stories to please themselves, and thus please the majority. There will be fewer writers, like O. Henry, who stop short of the final touch of perfection because American taste (and the American editor) puts no premium upon artistic work. There will be fewer stories, I trust, where sentiment is no longer a part, but the whole of life. Most of all, form, the form, the formula, will relax its grip upon the short story, will cease its endless tapping upon the door of interest, and its smug content when some underling (while the brain sleeps) answers its stereotyped appeal. And we may get more narratives like Mrs. Wharton's "Ethan Frome," to make us feel that now as much as ever there is literary genius waiting in America.
A CERTAIN CONDESCENSION TOWARD FICTION
If only the reader of novels would say what he thinks about fiction! If only the dead hand of hereditary opinion did not grasp and distort what he feels! But he exercises a judgment that is not independent. Books, like persons, he estimates as much by the traditional reputation of the families they happen to be born in as by the merits they may themselves possess, and the traditional reputation of the novel in English has been bad.
Poetry has a most respectable tradition. Even now, when the realistic capering of free verse has emboldened the ordinary man to speak his mind freely, a reviewer hesitates to apply even to bad poetry so undignified a word as trash. The essay family is equally respectable, to be noticed, when noticed at all, with some of the reverence due to an ancient and dignified art. The sermon family, still numerous to a degree incredible to those who do not study the lists of new books, is so eminently respectable that few dare to abuse even its most futile members. But the novel was given a bad name in its youth that has overshadowed its successful maturity.
Our ancestors are much to blame. For centuries they held the novel suspect as a kind of bastard literature, probably immoral, and certainly dangerous to intellectual health. But they are no more deeply responsible for our suppressed contempt of fiction than weak-kneed novelists who for many generations have striven to persuade the English reader that a good story was really a sermon, or a lecture on ethics, or a tract on economics or moral psychology, in disguise. Bernard Shaw, in his prefaces to the fiction that he succeeds in making dramatic, is carrying on a tradition that Chaucer practised before him:
And ye that holden this tale a folye,— As of a fox, or of a cok and hen,— Taketh the moralite, good men.
And that was the way they went at it for centuries, always pretending, always driven to pretend, that a good story was not good enough to be worth telling for itself alone, but must convey a moral or a satire or an awful lesson, or anything that might separate it from the "just fiction" that only the immoral and the frivolous among their contemporaries read or wrote. Today we pay the price.
William Painter, her Majesty Queen Elizabeth's clerk of ordnance in the Tower, is an excellent instance. Stricken by a moral panic, he advertised that from his delectable "Palace of Pleasure" the young might "learne how to avoyde the ruine, overthrow, inconvenience and displeasure, that lascivious desire and wanton evil doth bring to their suters and pursuers"—a disingenuous sop to the Puritans. His contemporary,
Geoffrey Fenton, who also turned to story-making, opines that in histories "the dignitye of vertue and fowelenes of vice appereth muche more lyvelye then in any morall teachynge," although he knew that his "histories" were the sheerest, if not the purest, of fiction, with any moral purpose that might exist chiefly of his own creating. A century and more later Eliza Haywood, the ambiguous author of many ambiguous novels of the eighteenth century, prefaces her "Life's Progress Through the Passions" (an ambiguous title) with like hypocrisy: "I am enemy to all romances, novels, and whatever carries the air of them. . . . It is a real, not a fictitious character I am about to present"—which is merely another instance of fiction disguising itself, this time, I regret to say, as immorality in real life. And so they all go, forever implying that fiction is frivolous or immoral or worthless, until it is not surprising that, as Mr. Bradsher has reminded us, the elder Timothy Dwight of Yale College was able to assert, "Between the Bible and novels there is a gulf fixed which few novel-readers are willing to pass." Richardson was forced to defend himself, so was Sterne, so was Fielding, so was Goldsmith. Dr. Johnson was evidently making concessions when he advised romances as reading for youth. Jeffrey, the critic and tyrant of the next century, summed it all up when he wrote that novels are "generally regarded as among the lower productions of our literature." And this is the reputation that the novel family has brought with it even down to our day.
The nineteenth century was worse, if anything, than earlier periods, for it furthered what might be called the evangelistic slant toward novel-reading, the attitude that neatly classified this form of self-indulgence with dancing, card-playing, hard drinking, and loose living of every description. It is true that the intellectuals and worldly folk in general did not share this prejudice. Walter Scott had made novel-reading common among the well-read; but the narrower sectarians in England, the people of the back country and the small towns in America, learned to regard the novel as unprofitable, if not positively leading toward ungodliness, and their unnumbered descendants make up the vast army of uncritical readers for which Grub Street strives and sweats to-day. They no longer abstain and condemn; instead, they patronize and distrust.
All this—and far more, for I have merely sketched in a long and painful history—is the background seldom remembered when we wonder at the easy condescension of the American toward his innumerable novels.
The fact of his condescension is not so well recognized as it deserves to be. Indeed, condescension may not seem to be an appropriate term for the passionate devouring of romance that one can see going on any day in the trolley-cars, or the tense seriousness with which some readers regard certain novelists whose pages have a message for the world. True, the term will not stretch thus far. But it is condescension that has made the trouble, as I shall try to prove; for all of us, even the tense ones, do patronize that creative instinct playing upon life as it is which in all times and everywhere is the very essence of fiction.
How absurd that here in America we should condescend toward our fiction! How ridiculous in a country even yet so weak and poor and crude in the arts, which has contributed so little to the world's store of all that makes fine living for the mind! What a laughable parallel of the cock and the gem he found and left upon the dung- heap, if we could be proved not to be proud of American fiction! For if the novel and the short story should be left out of America's slender contribution to world literature, the offering would be a small one. Some poetry of Whitman's and of Poe's, some essays of Emerson, a little Thoreau, and what important besides? Hawthorne would be left from the count, the best exemplar of the fine art of moral narrative in any language; Henry James would be left out, the master of them all in psychological character analysis; Poe the story-teller would be missing, and the art of the modern short story, which in English sterns from him; Cooper would be lost from our accounting, for all his crudities the best historical novelist after Scott; Mark Twain, Howells, Bret Harte, Irving! The attempt to exalt American literature is grateful if one begins upon fiction.
And how absurd to patronize, to treat with indifferent superiority just because they are members of the novel family, books such as these men have left us, books such as both men and women are writing in America to-day! Is there finer workmanship in American painting or American music or American architecture than can be found in American novels by the reader willing to search and discriminate? A contemporary poet confessed that he would have rather written a certain sonnet (which accompanied the confession) than have built Brooklyn Bridge. One may doubt the special case, yet uphold the principle. Because a novel is meant to give pleasure, because it deals with imagination rather than with facts and appeals to the generality rather than to the merely literary man or the specialist, because, in short, a novel is a novel, and a modern American novel, is no excuse for priggish reserves in our praise or blame. If there is anything worth criticizing in contemporary American literature it is our fiction.
Absurd as it may seem in theory, we have patronized and do patronize our novels, even the best of them, following too surely, though with a bias of our own, the Anglo-Saxon prejudice traditional to the race. And if the curious frame of mind that many reserve for fiction be analyzed and blame distributed, there will be a multitude of readers, learned and unlearned, proud and humble, critical and uncritical, who must admit their share. Nevertheless, the righteous wrath inspired by the situation shall not draw us into that dangerous and humorless thing, a general indictment. There are readers aplenty who, to quote Painter once more, find their novels "pleasant to avoyde the griefe of a Winters night and length of Sommers day," and are duly appreciative of that service. With such honest, if un-exacting, readers I have no quarrel; nor with many more critical who respect, while they criticize, the art of fiction. But with the scholars who slight fiction, the critics who play with it, the general reader who likes it contemptuously, and the social enthusiast who neglects its better for its worser part, the issue is direct. All are the victims of hereditary opinion; but some should know better than to be thus beguiled.
The Brahman among American readers of fiction is of course the college professor of English. His attitude (I speak of the type; there are individual variations of note) toward the novel is curious and interesting. It is exhibited perhaps in the title by which such courses in the novel as the college permits are usually listed. "Prose fiction" seems to be the favorite description, a label designed to recall the existence of an undeniably respectable fiction in verse that may justify a study of the baser prose. By such means is so dubious a term as novel or short story kept out of the college catalogue!
Yet even more curious is the academic attitude toward the novel itself. Whether the normal professor reads many or few is not the question, nor even how much he enjoys or dislikes them. It is what he permits himself to say that is significant. Behind every assent to excellence one feels a reservation: yes, it is good enough for a novel! Behind every criticism of untruth, of bad workmanship, of mediocrity (alas! so often deserved in America!) is a sneering implication: but, after all, it is only a novel. Not thus does he treat the stodgy play in stodgier verse, the merits of which, after all, may amount to this, that in appearance it is literary; not thus the critical essay or investigation that too often is like the parasite whose sustaining life comes from the greater life on which it feeds. In the eyes of such a critic the author of an indifferent essay upon Poe has more distinguished himself than if he had written a better than indifferent short story. Fiction, he feels, is the plaything of the populace. The novel is "among the lower productions of our literature." It is plebeian, it is successful, it is multitudinous; the Greeks in their best period did not practise it (but here he may be wrong); any one can read it; let us keep it down, brethren, while we may. Many not professors so phrase their inmost thoughts of fiction and the novel.
And in all this the college professor is profoundly justified by tradition, if not always by common sense. To him belongs that custody of the classical in literature which his profession inherited from the monasteries, and more remotely from the rhetoricians of Rome. And there is small place for fiction, and none at all for the novel and the short story as we know them, in what has been preserved of classic literature. The early Renaissance, with its Sidney for spokesman, attacked the rising Elizabethan drama because it was unclassical. The later Renaissance, by the pen of Addison (who would have made an admirable college professor), sneered at pure fiction, directly and by implication, because it was unclassical. To-day we have lost our veneration for Latin and Greek as languages, we no longer deprecate an English work because it happens to be in English; nevertheless the tradition still grips us, especially if we happen to be Brahmanic. Our college professors, and many less excusable, still doubt the artistic validity of work in a form never dignified by the practice of the ancients, never hallowed, like much of English literature besides, by a long line of native productions adapting classic forms to new ages and a new speech. The epic, the lyric, the pastoral, the comedy, the tragedy, the elegy, the satire, the myth, even the fable, have been classic, have usually been literature. But the novel has never been a preserve for the learned, although it came perilously near to that fate in the days of Shakespeare; has ever been written for cash or for popular success rather than for scholarly reputation; has never been studied for grammar, for style, for its "beauties"; has since its genesis spawned into millions that no man can classify, and produced a hundred thousand pages of mediocrity for one masterpiece. All this (and in addition prejudices unexpressed and a residuum of hereditary bias) lies behind the failure of most professors of English to give the good modern novel its due. Their obstinacy is unfortunate; for, if they praised at all, they would not, like many hurried reviewers, praise the worst best.
I will not say that more harm has been done to the cause of the novel in America by feeble reviewing than by any other circumstance, for that would not be true; bad reading has been more responsible for the light estimation in which our novel is held. Nevertheless it is certain that the ill effects of a doubtful literary reputation are more sadly displayed in current criticism of the novel than elsewhere. An enormous effusion of writing about novels, especially in the daily papers, most of it casual and conventional, much of it with neither discrimination nor constraint, drowns the few manful voices raised to a pitch of honest concern. The criticism of fiction, taken by and large, is not so good as the criticism of our acted drama, not so good as our musical criticism, not so good as current reviewing of poetry and of published plays.
Are reviewers bewildered by the coveys of novels that wing into editorial offices by every mail? Is the reviewing of novels left to the novice as a mere rhetorical exercise in which, a subject being afforded, he can practise the display of words? Or is it because a novel is only a novel, only so many, many novels, for which the same hurried criticism must do, whether they be bad or mediocre or best? The reviewing page of the standard newspaper fills me with unutterable depression. There seem to be so many stories about which the same things can be said. There seems to be so much fiction that is "workmanlike," that is "fascinating," that "nobly grasps contemporary America," that will "become a part of permanent literature," that "lays bare the burning heart of the race." Of course the need of the journalist to make everything "strong" is behind much of this mockery; but not all. Hereditary disrespect for fiction has more to do with this flood of bad criticism than appears at first sight.
Far more depressing, however, is the rarity of real criticism of the novel anywhere. As Henry James, one of the few great critics who have been willing to take the novel seriously, remarked in a now famous essay, the most notable thing about the modern novel in English is its appearance of never having been criticized at all. A paragraph or so under "novels of the day" is all the novelist may expect until he is famous, and more in quantity, but not much more in quality, then. As for critical essays devoted to his work, discriminating studies that pick out the few good books from the many bad, how few they are (and how welcome, now that they are increasing in number), how deplorably few in comparison with the quantity of novels, in comparison with the quality of the best novels!
And what of the general public, that last arbiter in a democracy, whose referendum, for a year at least, confirms or renders null and void all critical legislation good or bad? The general public is apparently on the side of the novelist; to borrow a slang term expressive here, it is "crazy" about fiction. It reads so much fiction that hundreds of magazines and dozens of publishers live by nothing else. It reads so much fiction that public libraries have to bait their serious books with novels in order to get them read. It is so avid for fiction that the trades whose business it is to cultivate public favor, journalism and advertising, use almost as much fiction as the novel itself. A news article or an interview or a Sunday write-up nowadays has character, background, and a plot precisely like a short story. Its climax is carefully prepared for in the best manner of Edgar Allan Poe, and truth is rigorously subordinated (I do not say eliminated) in the interest of a vivid impression. Advertising has become half narrative and half familiar dialogue. Household goods are sold by anecdotes, ready-made clothes figure in episodes illustrated by short-story artists, and novelettes, distributed free, conduct us through an interesting fiction to the grand climax, where all plot complexities are untangled by the installation of an automatic water-heater. I am not criticizing the tendency—it has made the pursuit of material comfort easier and more interesting,—but what a light it throws upon our mania for reading stories!
Alas! the novel needs protection from its friends. This vast appetite for fiction is highly uncritical. It will swallow anything that interests, regardless of the make-up of the dish. Only the inexperienced think that it is easy to write an interesting story; but it is evident that if a writer can be interesting he may lack every other virtue and yet succeed. He can be a bad workman, he can be untrue, he can be sentimental, he can be salacious, and yet succeed.
No one need excite himself over this circumstance. It is inevitable in a day when whole classes that never read before begin to read. The danger lies in the attitude of these new readers, and many old ones, toward their fiction. For they, too, condescend even when most hungry for stories. They, too, share the inherited opinion that a novel is only a novel, after all, to be read, but not to be respected, to be squeezed for its juices, then dropped like a grape-skin and forgotten. Perhaps the Elizabethan mob felt much the same way about the plays they crowded to see; but their respect, the critics' respect, Shakespeare's respect, for the language of noble poesy, for noble words and deeds enshrined in poetry, is not paralleled to-day by an appreciation of the fine art of imaginative character representation as it appears in our novel and in all good fiction.
Is it necessary to prove this public disrespect? The terms in which novels are described by their sponsors is proof enough in itself. Seemingly, everything that is reputable must be claimed for every novel—good workmanship, vitality, moral excellence, relative superiority, absolute greatness—in order to secure for it any deference whatsoever. Or, from another angle, how many readers buy novels, and buy them to keep? How many modern novels does one find well bound, and placed on the shelves devoted to "standard reading"? In these Olympian fields a mediocre biography, a volume of second-rate poems, a rehash of history, will find their way before the novels that in the last decade have equaled, if not outranked, the rest of our creative literature.
If more proof were needed, the curious predilections of the serious-minded among our novel-readers would supply it. For not all Americans take the novel too lightly; some take it as heavily as death. To the school that tosses off and away the latest comer is opposed the school which, despising all frivolous stories written for pleasure merely, speaks in tense, devoted breath of those narratives wherein fiction is weighted with facts, and pinned by a moral to the sober side of life. It is significant that the novels most highly respected in America are studies of social conditions, reflexes of politics, or tales where the criticism of morals overshadows the narrative. Here the novel is an admirable agent. Its use as a purveyor of miscellaneous ideas upon things in general is no more objectionable than the cutting of young spruces to serve as Christmas-trees. For such a function they were not created, but they make a good end, nevertheless. The important inference is rather that American readers who do pretend to take the novel seriously are moved not so much by the fiction in their narratives as by the sociology, philosophy, or politics imaginatively portrayed. They respect a story with such a content because it comes as near as the novel can to not being fiction at all. And this, I imagine, is an unconscious throw-back to the old days when serious-minded readers chose Hannah More for the place of honor, because her stories taught the moralist how to live and die.
The historically minded will probably remark upon these general conclusions that a certain condescension toward some form of literature has ever been predictable of the general reader; the practically minded may add that no lasting harm to the mind of man and the pursuit of happiness seems to have come of it. The first I freely admit; the second I gravely doubt for the present and distrust for the future. Under conditions as we have them and will increasingly have them here in America, under democratic conditions, condescension toward fiction, the most democratic of literary arts, is certainly dangerous. It is dangerous because it discourages good writing. In this reading society that we have made for ourselves here and in western Europe, where much inspiration, more knowledge, and a fair share of the joy of living come from the printed page, good writing is clearly more valuable than ever before in the history of the race. I do not agree with the pessimists who think that a democratic civilization is necessarily an enemy to fine writing for the public. Such critics underrate the challenge which these millions of minds to be reached and souls to be touched must possess for the courageous author; they forget that writers, like actors, are inspired by a crowded house. But the thought and the labor and the pain that lie behind good writing are doubly difficult in an atmosphere of easy tolerance and good-natured condescension on the part of the readers of the completed work.
The novel is the test case for democratic literature. We cannot afford to pay its practitioners with cash merely, for cash discriminates in quantity and little more. Saul and David were judged by the numbers of their thousands slain; but the test was a crude one for them and cruder still for fiction. We cannot afford to patronize these novelists as our ancestors did before us. Not prizes or endowments or coterie worship or, certainly, more advertising is what the American novelist requires, but a greater respect for his craft. The Elizabethan playwright was frequently despised of the learned world, and, if a favorite with the vulgar, not always a respected one. Strange that learned and vulgar alike should repeat the fallacy in dispraising the preeminently popular art of our own times! To Sir Francis Bacon "Hamlet" was presumably only a playactor's play. If the great American story should arrive at last, would we not call it "only a novel"?
THE ESSENCE OF POPULARITY
You might suppose that popular literature was a modern invention. Cultivated shoulders shrug at the mention of "best sellers" with that air of "the world is going to the devil" which just now is annoyingly familiar. Serious minded people write of The Saturday Evening Post as if it represented some new fanaticism destined to wreck civilization. The excessive popularity of so many modern novels is felt to be a mystery.
Of course there are new elements in literary popularity. The wave of interest used to move more slowly. Now thousands, and sometimes millions, read the popular story almost simultaneously, and see it, just a little later on the films. Millions, also, of the class which never used to read at all are accessible to print and have the moving pictures to help them.
But popularity has not changed its fundamental characteristics. The sweep of one man's idea or fancy through other minds, kindling them to interest, has been typical since communication began. The Greek romances of Heliodorus may be analyzed for their popular elements quite as readily as "If Winter Comes." "Pilgrim's Progress" and "The Thousand and One Nights" could serve as models for success, and the question, What makes popularity in fiction? be answered from them with close, if not complete, reference to the present. However, the results of an inquiry into popularity will be surer if we stick to modern literature, not forgetting its historical background. Human nature, which changes its essence so slowly through the centuries, nevertheless shows rapid alterations of phase. The question I propose, therefore, is, What makes a novel popular in our time?
I do not ask it for sordid reasons. What makes a novel sell 100,000 copies, or a short story bring $1000? may seem the same query; but it does not get the same answer, or, apparently, any answer valuable for criticism. A cloud descends upon the eyes of those who try to teach how to make money out of literature and blinds them. Their books go wrong from the start, and most of them are nearly worthless. They propose to teach the sources of popularity, yet instead of dealing with those fundamental qualities of emotion and idea which (as I hope to show) make popularity, their tale is all of emphasis, suspense, beginnings and endings, the relativity of characters, dialogue, setting— useful points for the artisan but not the secret of popularity, nor, it may be added, of greatness in literature. Technique is well enough, in fact some technique is indispensable for a book that is to be popular, but it is the workaday factor in literature, of itself it accomplishes nothing.
But technique can be taught. That is the explanation of the hundred books upon it, and their justification. You cannot teach observation, or sympathy, or the background of knowledge which makes possible the interpretation and selection of experience—not at least in a lesson a week for nine months. Hence literary advisers who must teach something and teach it quickly are drawn, sometimes against their better judgment, to write books on technique by which criticism profits little. Technical perfection becomes their equivalent for excellence and for popularity. It is not an equivalent. More than a mason is required for the making of a statue.
I disclaim any attempt to teach how to be popular in this essay, although deductions may be made. I am interested in popularity as a problem for criticism. I am interested in appraising the pleasure to be got from such popular novels as "The Age of Innocence," "Miss Lulu Bett," "If Winter Comes," or "The Turmoil" —and the not infrequent disappointments from others equally popular. I am especially interested in the attempt to estimate real excellence, an attempt which requires that the momentarily popular shall be separated from the permanently good; which requires that a distinction be made between what must have some excellence because so many people like it, and what is good in a book whether many people like it or not. Such discrimination may not help the young novelist to make money, but it can refine judgment and deepen appreciation.
As for the popularity and its meaning, there need be no quarrel over that term. Let us rule out such accidents as when a weak book becomes widely known because it is supposed to be indecent, or because it is the first to embody popular propaganda, or because its hero is identified with an important figure of real life, or for any other casual reason. If a novel, because of the intrinsic interest of its story, or on account of the contagion of the idea it contains, is widely read by many kinds of readers, and if these readers on their own initiative recommend the book they have read to others, that is popularity, and a sufficient definition.
Perfection of form is not enough to make a book popular. A story has to move or few will read it, but it is doubtful whether a greater technical achievement than this is required for popularity. "Samson Agonistes" is technically perfect, but was never popular, while, to pass from the sublime to its opposite, "This Side of Paradise" was most crudely put together, and yet was popular. The best-built short stories of the past decade have not been the most popular, have not even been the best. No popular writer but could have been (so I profoundly believe) more popular if he had written better. But good writing is not a specific for unpopularity. The excellent writing of Howells could not give him Mark Twain's audience. The weak and tedious construction of Shakespeare's "Antony and Cleopatra," the flat style of Harold Bell Wright's narratives, has not prevented them from being liked. Form is only a first step toward popularity.