If, Yes, and Perhaps. Four Possibilities and Six Exaggerations, With Some Bits of Fact
REVIEWS AND LITERARY NOTICES.
By Ticknor and Fields.. Boston:
IT is one of the sad offices of criticism oftentimes to say self-evident things, to discover obvious facts, to enforce undisputed opinions. We had an idea of referring to Mr. Hale as a most charming writer, with a gift of invention so original that it might almost be pronounced novel, and a verve and spirit that we do not know exactly where to match; but it has occurred to us that this can scarcely be a secret to the readers of the Atlantic; and we own that we should be very glad to let his little book speak for itself, except that we do not allow any one but the Reviewer to repeat himself in these pages, from which Mr. Hale has taken some of the best things in the present volume. Our readers need only to be reminded of “ My Double, and how he undid me,” “The Man without a Country,” “The Last of the Florida,” to be able to form a just notion of the quality of this collection, which includes papers from various sources, and of such remote dates as 1842, 1851, and 1852; and he need only look over the earliest of these — “The South American Editor” — in order to see how real a gift is Mr. Hale’s extraordinary power of utilizing the improbable, and of turning exaggeration to the best and pleasantest account. The charm in his things is — as nearly as we can get at It — that the characters, in no matter what absurdity of attitude or situation they find themselves, always act in the most probable manner; the plot is as bizarre or grotesque as you like, but the people are all true to nature, and are exactly our friends and neighbors, or what our friends and neighbors would be if they were a little livelier. The Rev. Frederick Ingham and his man Dennis, so wildly fantastic in their relation to each other, are never anything but New England clergyman and Irishman in themselves ; Philip Nolan, amidst all the sad impossibilities of his fate, was so veritable a man, that many have claimed to know his history apart from Mr. Hale’s narrative. You have granted the author’s preposterous premises almost before he asks you, and thereafter he has you quite at his disposal ; you are to laugh or sigh as he bids you, and not to concern yourself with the probable or improbable. Perhaps his peculiar gift is most skilfully employed in that lovely love-story, “ The Children of the Public,” in which every incident appears the most likely thing that could have happened — in the circumstances. Carter is so truly and thoroughly an honest-hearted young adventurer, come to New York to attend the distribution of Mr. Burrham’s cyclopaedias, and Fausta—cast upon his poverty and ignorance by the theft of her trunk and all her money, and the address of the lady she is come to visit — is so sweetly and naturally trustful of him and fate, that it does not seem in the least strange that they should dine and sup together for six cents, should while away their time on the streets, in hotel parlors, and public libraries till night, and should sleep at the public charge, — she in a church-pew, and he in a station-house, — or should next day both draw prizes in Mr. Burrham’s gift enterprise, and get married shortly. You do not perceive till the end that these events belong, perhaps, to the range of fact, but not to that of probability; and the interest of the pretty love-story is so artfully thrown over all, that you do not understand at first what a lesson in modern civilization you have been taking. On the whole, though this paper lacks the daring and delightful humor of “ My Double, and how he undid me,” we are inclined to rank it first among those in the book, which is rating it very high. In some of the others, the conception being not so happy, the art is less, and the artifice is more : in “ The Skeleton in the Closet ” the construction is felt almost unpleasantly, — even the humor of it does not save it from being a little scadente. “ A Piece of Possible History,” in which Homer and David are brought together, and “ The Old and the New, Face to Face,” in which Paul and Seneca are confronted, are not strongly wrought; but “ Christmas Waits in Boston ” is a very charming bit of cheerful and ingenious suggestion and invention.
Mr. Hale, indeed, after Dr. Holmes, is the writer the most deeply imbued with local colors and flavors. His experience, no less than his taste, is such as to make him know Boston character to the core, and his people are nearly always Bostonian. It is quite the same whether they live in Richmond or Naguadavick; and this peculiarity, of which the author is doubtless as perfectly conscious as any other, enhances the unique and delightful ideality of all the sketches.