By the Author of " What Cheer?” Boston: Thayer & Eldridge.
ONE of the most impossible books that man ever wrote. A book which one could almost prove never could be written, and which, as an illogical conclusion, but a stubborn fact, has been written, nevertheless. “ Harrington ” is an Abolition novel, the-scene of which is laid in Boston, with a few introductory chapters of plantation-slavery in Louisiana. Its principal merit is its burning earnestness of feeling and purpose; and earnestness is sacred from criticism. Whenever the warm pulse of an author’s heart can be felt through the texture of his story, criticism is mere flippancy. But, at the risk of making our author’s lip curl with disdain of the sordid insensibility that refuses to join in his enthusiasm throughout, we shall venture to remind him that enthusiasm is no proof of truth, whether in argument or conclusion.
The introductory chapters, containing the flight of the slave Antony through the Louisiana swamp, are almost unequalled for unfaltering power, for gorgeous wealth of color. Many of the glowing sentences belong rather to passionate poetry than to tamer prose. The agonized resolution that turns the panting fugitive’s blood and body to fire, — the fear, so vividly portrayed that the reader’s nerves thrill with the shock that brings the hunted negro’s heart almost to his mouth with one wild throb, — the matchless picture of the forest and marsh, lengthening and widening with dizzy swell to the weary eye and failing brain,— all are the work of a master of language.
When the scene shifts to Boston, the language, which was in perfect keeping with the tropical madness of Antony’s flight and the tropical splendor of the Southern forest, is extravagant to actual absurdity, when used with reference to ordinary scenes and ordinary events. All the force of contrast is lost; and contrast is the great secret of effect. The lavish richness of our author’s words is as little suited to the things they describe as a mantle of gold brocade would be to the shoulders of a beggar. Even the loveliest of young women is more likely to enter a room by the ordinary mysterious mode of locomotion than to “flash” into it like a salamander. That it was possible for Murid Eastman, in gratifying her “ vaulting ambition ” by a very creditable spring over the parallel bars, to “ toss the air into perfume,” we are not prepared to deny, having no very clear notion of the meaning of those remarkable words : but when we are told that Mrs. Eastman was “ ineffably surprised, yet more ineffably amused,” we must be allowed to enter an energetic protest. Harrington himself is perhaps a trifle too “ regnant ” to be altogether satisfactory; and there are many similar extravagances and inaccuracies.
The social intercourse of the ladies and gentlemen in this book is particularly bad. It seems as if the author were ignorant of the usages of good society, and, impatient of the vulgar ceremony of inferior people, had seen no way to assert the superiority of his two fair ladies and their unimaginable lovers, except making them dispense with all such observances whatever. His uncertainty how people in their position really do act has hampered his powers; and he is not that rarity, an original writer, but that very common person, one who tries to be original. Real ladies and gentlemen are not reduced to the alternative of either being embarrassed by the ordinary social rules or disregarding them altogether; they take advantage of them. It is a false originality that is singular about ordinary forms; it is only the tyro in chess who is “original” in his first move ; Paul Morphy, the most inventive of players, always begins with the customary advance of the king’s pawn.
There is the usual partiality — onesidedness — common to the writings and orations of our author’s political school. It may well be doubted whether in reality all the virtues have been monopolized by the Antislavery men, all the vices by their opponents. Our author only hurts his own cause, when he invests with a halo of light every brawler who echoes the words of the really eminent leaders. Because one Abolitionist, who has sacrificed power and position to his creed, is entitled to praise, is another, who perhaps, by advocating the same doctrines, gains a higher position, a wider influence, perhaps an easier support, than he could in any other way, to share the credit of having made a sacrifice ? One would not disparage martyrs; but Saint Lawrence on a cold gridiron, and the pilgrim who boiled his peas, are entitled to more credit for their shrewdness than their suffering. Our author, however, makes no distinction ; and a natural result will be that many of his readers, knowing that in one case his praises are undeserved, will be slow to believe them just in any case. And not only are all of this particular school disinterested, but they are all among the master-intellects of the age, apparently by definition. Mr. Harrington himself is the commanding intellect of the story, perhaps because of his belief in the greatest number of heresies, — being somewhat peculiar in his religious views, believing in woman’s rights, considering the marriage ceremony a silly concession to popular prejudice, giving credence to omens, active as an Abolitionist, and — to crown all — holding that Lord Bacon wrote Shakspeare’s Plays ! We sympathize entirely with the author’s indignant protest against thinking a theory necessarily inaccurate because it contravenes the opinion of the majority. Certainly, a new thing is not necessarily wrong; but neither is a new thing necessarily right; and we are heartless enough to pronounce the “ Baconian theory ” rather weak than otherwise for a hero.
We cannot close our notice of this book without commending the old French fencing-master as particularly good. He talks very simply and well on matters that he understands, and is silent on those that he does not understand,— affording in both respects an excellent example to the more important characters.