Recent American Fiction

WHILE a novelist is living and at work, his growth in power is more interesting to critics than the expression of that power in any one piece of work. The Rise of Silas Lapham 1 would probably affect a reader who should make Mr. Howells’s acquaintance through it, in a different manner from what it does one who has followed Mr. Howells, as so many have, step by step, ever since he put forth his tentative sketches in fiction. We do not think that Mr. Howells has kept back the exercise of certain functions until he should have perfected his faculty of art by means of lighter essays, but that, in the process of his art, he has partly discovered, at any rate has convinced himself of the higher value to be found in a creation which discloses morals as well as manners. An art which busies itself with the trivial or the spectacular may be ever so charming and attractive, but it falls short of the art which builds upon foundations of a more enduring sort. A pasteboard triumphal-arch that serves the end of a merry masque is scarcely more ephemeral than the masque itself in literature.

The novel before us oilers a capital example of the difference between the permanent and the transient in art. Had Mr. Howells amused himself and us with a light study of the rise of Silas Lapham in Boston society, what a clever book he might have made of it ! We should have chuckled to ourselves over the dismay of the hero at the failure of the etiquette man to solve his problems, and have enjoyed a series of such interior views as we get in the glimpse of Irene “ trailing up and down before the long mirror in her new dress [Mr. Howells never seems quite sure that we shall put the emphasis where it belongs without his gentle assistance], followed by the seamstress on her knees ; the woman had her mouth full of pins, and from time to time she made Irene stop till she could put one of the pins into her train ; ” we should have followed the fluctuations of pride and affection and fastidiousness in the Corey family, and have sent a final shuddering thought down the vista of endless dinner parties which should await the union of the two houses. All this and much more offered materials for the handling of which we could have trusted Mr. Howells’s sense of humor without fear that he would disappoint us.

But all this is in the story; only it occupies the subordinate, not the primary place, and by and by the reader, who has followed the story with delight in the playful art, discovers that Mr. Howells never intended to waste his art on so shallow a scheme, that he was using all this realism of Boston society as a relief to the heavier mass contained in the war which was waged within the conscience of the hero. When in the final sentence he reads : " I don’t know as I should always say it paid ; but if I done it, and the thing was to do over again, right in the same way, I guess I should have to do it,” he recognizes, in this verdict of the faithfully illiterate Colonel, the triumphant because unconscious attainment of a victory which justifies the title of the story. No mere vulgar rise in society through the marriage of a daughter to a son of a social prince, or the possession of a house on the water side of Beacon Street, would serve as a real conclusion to the history of a character like that of Silas Lapham; as if to flout such an idea, the marriage when it comes is stripped of all possible social consequences, and the house is burned to the ground. In place of so trivial an end there is a fine subjection of the mean and ignoble, and as in Balzac’s César Birotteau, a man of accidental vulgarity discloses his essential nobility ; with this added virtue in the case of Mr. Howells’s hero, that we see the achievement of moral solvency unglorified by any material prosperity, and the whole history of the rise unadorned by any decoration of sentiment.

We have intimated that this bottoming of art on ethical foundations is a late development in Mr. Howells’s work. In truth, this is but the second important example. An Undiscovered Country hinted at the possibility of there being other things than were dreamt of in the philosophy of light-minded young women, but it has always seemed to us that the book suffered from its use of an essentially ignoble parody of human far-sightedness. The real break which Mr. Howells made in his continuity of fiction was in A Modern Instance. That book suffered from too violent an effort at change of base. With all our respect for the underlying thought, a respect which we tried to make clear when we reviewed the book,2 we think that the author’s habit of fine discrimination misled him into giving too much value in his art to the moral intention and too little to the overt act. The casual reader of A Modern Instance failed to be sufficiently impressed by the enormity of Bartley Hubbard’s guilt. Mr. Howells was carrying over into the region of ethical art the same delicate methods which he had used so effectively in social art. But in affairs which touch the surface of life, such as etiquette, dress, the conventions of society in general, the difference between tweedledum and tweedledee is enormous, while the moment one pushes off into the deeper currents of impassioned human life, mere casuistry ceases to interest one who is struggling with vital problems. A close observer might accept at its real valuation Mr. Howells’s reading of those penetrating words of the interpreter of the moral law which made sin to consist in the unacted thoughts of the heart, and found a man who was angry with his brother without a cause to be no better than a murderer ; but the rough and ready critic would be impatient at an art which seemed to make no distinction between the little and the great in misdemeanor. Nor do we think such a critic unreasonable. If we are to have a portraiture of moral baseness, we have a right to ask for some shadows so deep as to leave no doubt of their meaning, instead of a multitude of little spots of darkness, any one of which may be indicative of turpitude, but all of which taken together do not accumulate into anything more than a character which repels one by its generally ignoble quality.

Was Mr. Howells faintly asserting his continued belief in the artistic justification of Bartley Hubbard, when he introduced him anew in this last story ? If he was, we are much obliged to him for not pressing his acquaintance farther upon us. Still, we are so far obliged to him that we must thank him for supplying by means of the juxtaposition a possible comparison between Hubbard and Lapham. They are both self-made men, but Hubbard is essentially vulgar, while Lapham is only accidentally so; the former thrusts his vulgarity through the thin covering of education and aptitude for the world, the latter thrusts his essential manliness through the equally thin covering of an uneducated manner and a hopeless condition of social outlawry.

Nevertheless, though there can be no mistaking Mr. Howells’s intention in this novel, and though he uses his material with a firmer hand, we confess, now that we are out of the immediate circle of its charm, that The Rise of Silas Lapham suffers from the same defect as A Modern Instance. The defect is not so obvious, but it arises from the same super-refinement of art. In brief, Silas Lapham, a man of coarse grain and excessive egotism, is, in the crucial scenes, treated as a man of subtlety of thought and feeling. We do not say that the turnings and windings of his conscience, and his sudden encounters with that delicious Mephistopheles, Milton K. Rogers, are not possible and even reasonable; but we complain that the author of his being, instead of preserving him as a rustic piece of Vermont limestone with the soil clinging to it, has insisted upon our seeing into the possibilities of a fine marble statue which reside in the bulk. Moreover, when one comes to think of it, how little the rise of this hero is really connected with the circumstances which make up the main incidents of the story. The relations with Rogers, out of which the moral struggle springs, are scarcely complicated at all by the personal relations with the Corey family arising from the love of young Corey for Penelope Lapham. The Colonel goes through the valley of tribulation almost independently of the fact that he and his are sojourning meanwhile in another half grotesque vale of tears.

This same over-refinement of motive, as supposed in natures which are not presumably subtle, impresses us in the whole history of Penelope’s love affair. We feel, rather than are able to say why we feel it, that there is something abnormal in the desolation which falls upon the entire Lapham family in consequence of Irene’s blindness and Penelope’s over-acuteness. We frankly confess that when reading the scenes, it seemed all right, and we gave ourselves up to the luxury of woe without a doubt as to its reality. But when thinking about them (forgive the italics), it seems an exaggeration, a pressing of the relations between these interesting people beyond the bounds of a charitable nature.

But when all is said, we come back with satisfaction to the recollection that Mr. Howells has distinctly set before himself in this book a problem worth solving, and if his statement and solution are presented with an art which has heretofore been so cunning as quite to reconcile one to the fragility of the object under the artist’s hand, and this art still seems sometimes to imply the former baselessness, we can at least thank our stars that when we criticise such a book as The Rise of Silas Lapham, we are dealing with a real piece of literature, which surely will not lose its charm when the distinctions of Nankeen Square and Beacon Street have become merely antiquarian nonsense.

The publication of The Prophet of the Great Smoky Mountains 3 in the pages of this magazine precludes the necessity of any analysis of its contents. Fortunately it does not forbid the critic the pleasure of reminding its readers, now that it appears in book form, how inadequate a serial reading is to a full perception of the merits of this remarkable novel. The stories which were collected under the title of In the Tennessee Mountains gave indication of the author’s power in the revelation of human character hid in the rough guise of the mountaineers. But the novel, Where the Battle was Fought, scarcely prepared us for the constructive ability which has so much to do with our delight in this book. The absence of any strong social contrasts enables us to apprehend more clearly the contrasts of a deeper personality, and in this microcosm, which is contained within a few square miles of mountain district, the opposing and combining forces of human nature are more forcibly presented because they are not confused with conventional activities. This world of the Great Smoky is so evenly remote from our personal knowledge in its mere outward shell that we never have to adjust our glass when we are studying its features ; it is so near in its interior life of passion that we have no difficulty in making out its finest pulsations. It is this substantial unity of design which excites our admiration, as we look again at a whole whose fragments we have found so full of individual life.

The harmony which results from this consistent isolation of characters and scenes is deepened by the contrasts which a fine art has evoked between the persons as they appeared to one another and as they stand revealed through the genius of the author. She has not smoothed a tone in their rough dialect, nor softened a line in their uncouth forms and dress, and yet she has managed, by what art we hardly know, to convey an idea of beauty and manliness that is not in the least incongruous. We do not speak now merely of external srace, though we think one of the triumphs of the story is in the manner in which Dorinda’s beauty takes hold of the reader; the scene, for instance, where she is spinning and talking with Rick Tyler is incomparably fine in its compact suggestiveness. It is the more elusive beauty of a spiritual sort, the disclosure of which marks the genius of this author. The whole conception of the prophet is one of extraordinary power. To think of that poor, rude mountaineer grappling on the Big Smoky with those phantoms of doubt which his paler, less sinewy brethren in the outer world are equally powerless to lay ! The consistency of Miss Murfree’s treatment is in nothing more noticeable than in this, that having to project such a figure she does not call in the slightest aid from the self-torture of the conventional world. Hiram Kelsey is as solitary in his wrestling with Satan as if no other human being had ever struggled with doubt. Yet what poor educated soul could declare his trouble more compactly than this rude prophet when he points at the mocking illusion of the “ bald,” and exclaims : “ That’s my religion : looks like fire, an’ it’s fog ! ”

The keen, epigrammatic force of such a statement does not seem the author’s own, any more than the wit, the humor, the sarcasm, which are drawled forth by the several characters. Whatever disappointment might fall to us if we were to seek for audible and visible reproduction of these figures in the actual mountains of Tennessee, we should remain convinced that the fault was in our ears and eyes, for the realism of the story is so firm that we are sure the only external power used has been in that compression which has reduced to the compass of a novel the breathing life of the human world that busies itself in that region, careless of anything beyond its own boundaries.

If the reader, when eager to follow the fortunes of the characters, was disposed to be impatient of the frequent interruptions in the chase, caused by the author’s affection for the wonderful nature in and out of which her people were moving, a recurrence to the book will probably find him lingering over these landscape passages. They are not obstructive to the enjoyment of the higher art of the story. On the contrary, they directly serve it by constantly suggesting in an unobtrusive manner the spiritual meaning of the movements going on in this little world. One comes to regard them as the accompaniment to the story, if one thinks of the lyrical, as the background, if one thinks of the pictorial, nature of the work. It is almost startling, in taking up the book, to find the very first paragraph capable of being treated as a prologue to the novel.

It is something more than a praise of style when we call attention to the sinewy compactness of language, which never becomes slack or redundant. There is a decided gain over her previous books in the fitness of phrase by which Miss Murfree sets forth character or incident. Not a word but appears to have been weighed, not an epithet but is like an arrow shot straight at the mark. This is one of the finest gifts of the imagination, — this power of making words vibrant with meaning; and, taken with the economy and reserve of strength shown in the construction of the novel, gives to us a strong faith that this writer has not expended herself, but will, whatever phase of life she may present, take counsel of her own rapidly maturing judgment, and give only what she has made thoroughly her own.

With each new novel Miss Howard shows herself to be broadening in power. Aulnay Tower,4 though inferior in interest to Guenn, discloses what she can do with a simple, almost conventional design. During the Franco-German war, the Château d’Aulnay lay within the lines by which the German army invested Paris. It was the only house whose occupants had not deserted it, but here continued to live the Marquis de Montauban, his niece the Countess Nathalie de Vallauris, a young widow, and the Abbé de Navailles, his spiritual adviser, with their few household servants. Hither came General von Aarenhorst and his suite, quartering themselves in the château. They came with soldierly courtesy, and the old marquis, at first furious with indignation, unbent himself and soon began to treat them with courtly hospitality. The abbé went silently about with his book and his religious work, Nathalie alone retaining an impenetrable coldness of demeanor. The young German officers all after their fashion fell madly in love with her, but she would not yield an iota. As a foil to her stateliness, her maid Manette, a vivacious coquette, flitted back and forth, captivating a burly orderly, and désolée over her mistress’s immobility in the presence of so much manliness.

Nathalie moved about among the villagers, and showed herself a sister of mercy to the sick and wounded who were brought in from the lines. She sat at dinner with her uncle and the abbé and the German officers, and in the evening appeared in the library. There was one of the Germans, the Baron von Nordenfels, who was distinguished from the rest by the quality of his bearing toward the countess. In truth he had been overcome by love at first sight, but unlike that of his companions, his devotion had not expended itself in chatter and useless vows ; it had manifested itself rather by a depth of feeling which slowly penetrated her reserve when it was scarcely observable by others—save by the abbé.

Nathalie yielded to its persuasively silent eloquence before she was prepared to confess that she had been captured, and while indeed her patriotism stoutly forbade any such conclusion to their armed neutrality as love. The accident, however, of a change in plans which withdrew the Saxons from the château brought about a sudden revelation to herself of her mind, although it did not bring her to any open confession. The accident of war again occurred to restore the Saxons to their old quarters, and the meeting of Nathalie and Nordenfels made it plain to each—as plain as it could be without the consent of speech — that the only barrier between them was that erected by nationality and religion, a powerful enough barrier under ordinary conditions, but not proof against love.

Meanwhile the German general of the district was perplexed by the knowledge which the French evidently possessed of his movements. His suspicions were aroused and doubled when it was reported that mysterious signals had been observed at the summit of Aulnay Tower, which rose above the old stone church connected with the château and commanded the plain on which it stood. Lights were sure to appear in the tower before the consummation of any plans which had been formed, and when the hour for action came, the French were found to be forewarned. In consequence, a strict watch was set, but without avail. Then Nathalie herself, ignorant of what had been going on, discovered from her chamber window these tower lights, and filled with a vague suspicion made her way alone by night through the church and into the tower chamber. There, as she had surmised, she found the abbé. She had long distrusted him upon other grounds ; now she was brought face to face with him in an encounter which rehearsed all the conflict of her life and opened new fields, for the abbé taxed her with her love for Nordenfels, and taunted her with sacrificing patriotism.

The situation was now a torture to her. She had not absolute proof, but a sure conviction that the abbé was engaged in a dishonorable act, for they had given their parole to the Germans. Yet should she disclose his treachery, when by so doing she aided the enemies of her country? Moreover, her lover was at this very time moving to the engagement of which the abbé had given warning to the French, and she must go to the interview which might be their last, burdened with a secret of such terrible import.

In the battle which took place Nordenfels was wounded — fatally the storyteller endeavors feebly to persuade her readers—and was brought back to the château. The abbé then, however, was surprised in the tower and killed, and the war came to an end, for this was at the close of the siege. Peace reigned, and in the quiet hours which followed Nordenfels came slowly back to life, and Nathalie, forgetting her sad denial of her lover, gave him her hand.

It will be seen from this sketch that the plot of the story runs on a few broad lines, and these marked by no special novelty. What we respect in the story is the dignity with which the several situations are worked out. Miss Howard is evidently impressed by her characters and by the scenes which they are enacting. To her, war is no convenient background for the enactment of the weightier tragedy of love, but a dread circumstance which imparts seriousness and meaning to the lightest adventure of human participants. She makes her heroine a beautiful woman with a sad history ; she invests her hero with the charm of knightliness, and the abbé with a soul apart from ordinary men ; and she does all this with a grace and naturalness which save her story from the commonplace of conventionality. The serenity of the book, its purity of feeling, and a certain large and magnanimous bearing secure for it an almost classical dignity.

Yet in attaining this end, or rather we should say in the elaboration of her simple scheme, Miss Howard has not altogether rid herself of some immaturity of art. A lively waiting-maid is no novelty either in fiction or on the stage, but we fail to perceive the necessity of transferring the methods of the melodrama to fiction of this sort; surely a countess like Nathalie would never have been beholden to a maid like Manette for a discovery of her own feelings toward Nordenfels! It was weak enough to allow Manette to talk in the half sublimary fashion she adopts, without making her tongue so important a factor in the development of the story. We can believe also many strange things in war, but it is hard to believe that the German officers, already distrustful of the abbé, should have failed to investigate the tower in some more soldierly fashion than a stroll into its chamber by the colonel after due notice to the abbé ! Not even a guard was stationed to prevent possible signals in the future.

Most incredible of all is the circumstance attending Nathalie’s visit to the tower on the night when she discovers the signals. We are told that the general of the district had taken singular measures to secure not only the earliest knowledge of the appearance of the lights, but immediate action in case of discovery. “ Accordingly General von Aarenhorst had a diopter adjusted to bear precisely upon Aulnay Tower, and in a square stone pillar supporting the balustrade of the high terrace at Clichy a groove cut sharply to hold the instrument, so that by night as well as by day the tower would be under scrutiny. An under-officer of the staff-watch was commanded to look at it every fifteen minutes during the night, and in case of the slightest discovery to announce it instantly. Horses stood saddled in the orderlies’ stables continually, and an expert rider knowing the short cuts could traverse the distance between Clichy and Aulnay in twenty minutes.” Well, this guard was established when Nathalie discovered the light, and after she has made her way to the tower chamber, stopping meanwhile to pray in the church, the reader listens to the long conversation which she holds with the abbé, with his other ear wide open for the arrival of that orderly, and expecting nothing less than the discovery by the Germans of the abbé and the countess in close converse, with no end of new and fresh complications. Not only is far more than twenty minutes accounted for between the moment when the countess leaves her room and the moment when she returns to it, but the orderly never comes at all.

In spite of these blemishes Miss Howard has attained something very like success in her book ; a success on the higher plane rather than on the lower, for had she been more attentive to the probabilities of her tale, and the petty vraisemblance, she might have missed the subtler grace which makes one rather indifferent to realistic details. In her desire not to make her plot too apparent, she has not wholly succeeded in making it probable, and the climax, when she reaches it, is somewhat nerveless; but the human plot, the play of character upon character, is well conceived and well shadowed forth ; especially is this true of the influence of the abbé over the marquis, which is outlined with extreme delicacy.

In Miss Jewett we have a writer who might, if personal comparisons were not idle as well as odious, be regarded in the light of Miss Howard’s career. It were scarcely more than an accidental ground of comparison, however, which should be taken, were we to note their contemporaneousness, their agreement in nativity, and their common literary pursuit. We prefer to consider Miss Jewett without reference to others, and even without much reference to her own previous work. Such a book as A Marsh Island5 may very properly ask to be looked at in a gallery by itself. Its charm is so pervasive, and so independent of the strict argument of the story, that those who enjoy it most are not especially impelled to discuss it. It does not invite criticism any more than it deprecates close scrutiny. What was the charm that Richard Dale found in the marsh island itself, where he was so willing a prisoner ? simply that which springs from a landscape, broad, unaccented, lying under a summer sky, breathing the fragrance of grass and wild roses. The people about him were farmer folk, scarcely racy even; the very heroine herself moves through the scenes unadorned by any caprices or fluttering ribbons of coquetry. The sketches which he brought away were studies in this quiet nature; they were figurative of A Marsh Island itself, which is an episode in water-color.

It seems to us that Miss Jewett owes her success, which is indubitable, to her wise timidity. She realizes the limitations of her power, and knows that what she can do within the range of her graceful gift is worth far more than any ambitious struggle outside of it would be. So long as she can make us feel the cool breeze blowing over the marshes, and suggest those long, even lines of landscape, and bring up to our imagination the swing of the scythe, the passage of the hay boat, the homely work of the kitchen, why should she weary us, quieted by these scenes, with the turbid life which another, more passionate novelist might with equal truth discover in the same range of human activity and suffering ? We are grateful to her for the shade of such a book as this, and accept it as one of the gifts which Nature herself brings to the tired dweller in cities. We are not uninterested in the quavers of Mr. Dale’s vacillating mind, and we recognize the lover in Dan Lester, but after all it is not these figures by themselves upon which our attention is fixed ; they but form a part of that succession of interiors and out-door scenes which pass before the eye in the pages of this book. Flemish pictures we were about to call them, but the refinement which belongs to Miss Jewett’s work forbids such a characterization. We return to our own figure : they are water-color sketches, resting for their value not upon dramatic qualities or strong color, but upon their translucency, their pure tone, their singleness of effect.

A stronger contrast could scarcely be suggested than by passing from A Marsh Island to Zoroaster.6 Mr. Crawford, after forays in Europe and America, has returned to Asia for a subject, and, by separating himself from the present and from the ordinary experience of men, has placed himself in a situation where his love of the marvelous and the superb has full play. The late Mr. Disraeli had a fancy for the gorgeous and the omnipotent, but one always felt that his dyes would run and his plating wear off. Mr. Crawford’s magnificence has a genuine ring to it, and we abandon ourselves to his lead with an honest confidence in his sincerity. We are not tempted to have recourse to the encyclopædia after reading this book, in order to verify the statements which he makes regarding Zoroaster and Darius and Atossa and the quite possible Nehushta ; we are only thankful that he does not insist upon our exchanging the name Zoroaster for the latest refinement of form which Oriental scholars may have selected for the baffling of old-fashioned readers. We accept his groundwork of history and his analysis of Zoroaster’s faith, and apply ourselves to the romance which he has erected upon it.

It was a kindness on Mr. Crawford’s part, and a clever stroke, to ease the way into the unfamiliar scenes by repeating for us, at the beginning of his story, the good old tale of Belshazzar’s Feast. The Bible and Mr. Allston’s unfinished picture are capital allies for Mr. Crawford, and by the time we have reached the death of Daniel the prophet, and so have left behind all our old friends, we are ready to plunge into the recesses of Persia with stout heart. For, with all respect to Mr. Crawford, he did a bold deed when he asked the polite novel-reader of the day to accompany him on such a journey, and with the best will in the world we confess to a little stiffness in the joints when bidden ride off into the East of the fifth century before Christ.

We might have spared ourselves some misgivings, for it turns out after all that love and jealousy and intrigue and clever devices are no modern invention, but were well known in Shushan before Paris had risen out of the swamps. A Persian queen throws herself into the arms of another woman’s lover just in time to make it appear to the woman that her lover is the active agent and not the passive sufferer, and our minds are set at rest as to any extraordinary or unexpected development of human frailty under the strange conditions of old Persia. In fact, we find ourselves witnessing the barbaric splendor of some Semiramis on the stage, and modifying our awe by remembering that we saw the queen last night in The Banker’s Daughter, or whatever may be the latest interpretation of civilized life in the nineteenth century.

Let not the reader be misled by our light-mindedness into depreciating Zoroaster. It is not a book of high imaginative power, because it does not produce strong pictures with an economy of material, and does not lift the mind into the contemplation of great human endeavor ; but it is a book of very fervid imagination, and the richness of its decoration will compensate to many for nobility of structure. One revels in its scenes as he would in costly stuffs and heaps of deftly assorted colors, and there is just enough of form and outline to justify one’s interest in the drama which goes on. There are besides separate passages which stir one by their vigor of expression ; such is the wrestling bout between Darius and Zoroaster in the tent of Nehushta, and the return of Zoroaster with Phraortes. There is a fine animal vitality in these and other passages which indicates one source of Mr. Crawford’s power as a writer. It is no light thing either that he should have laid on such glowing colors and presented so many passionate scenes without once entrapping the reader into any pitfalls of fleshliness. He has used a power for sensuous description without recourse to any base spirit. We have not cared to give a sketch of Mr. Crawford’s plot, because much of the pleasure to be gained from the book is in following the development of incidents and persons, and while the author does not rely on this for his sole means of gratifying the reader, he does interest himself in the story, and holds the issues well in hand to the very close.

  1. The Rise of Silas Lapham. By WILLIAM D. HOWELLS. Boston: Ticknor & Co. 1885.
  2. See The Atlantic Monthly for November, 1882.
  3. The Prophet of the Great Smoky Mountains. By CHARLES EGBERT CRADDOCK. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin & Co. 1885.
  4. Aulnay Tower. By BLANCHE WILLIS HOWARD. Boston: Ticknor & Co. 1885.
  5. A Marsh Island. By SARAH ORNE JEWETT. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin & Co. 1885.
  6. Zoroaster. By F. MARION CRAWFORD. London and New York: Macmillan & Co. 1885.