Recent Light Literature

THE quality of lightness in literature is somewhat independent of form. There have been heavy poems and novels, there have been essays as light and airy as gossamer. Now and then a philosophical work, even, is lifted by such dexterous and nimble phrase as to give one the impression not only that one is thinking, but thinking with ease and celerity. Mr. Stockton, in one of the most ingenious of his stories, fancies a middle-aged man supplied with a curious apparatus for diminishing the force of gravitation, so that he skips over the ground in an incredibly lively fashion, and, at last, when heedlessly relaxing his hold on substantial things, rises from the ground a little distance, and treads air as another might tread water. Most writers are powerfully affected by the law of gravitation ; it is when one has the secret of the more subtle law of levitation that we recognize a singularly attractive literary power.

Nor is it in literature alone that we are aware of this attraction. The musician, whose hands fly over the keys, often charms us through the same quality,— he has the light touch. We perceive when we look at some pictures that the painter has had a certain deftness in handling his brush, — he has the light touch. Even the solid marble which has yielded to the blow of the mallet sometimes discloses this quality ; one feels that the sculptor just touched the clay lightly here and there, and that the chisel only glanced on the surface.

This lightness of touch is essentially an artistic gift; it has to do rather with the skill of presentation than with the fineness of conception, yet it goes deeper than any mere mechanical dexterity. It responds to the fibre of the artist’s nature ; it is his tactile sense expressing itself ; and when we meet with it in any piece of work, we value it so highly that we sometimes wonder if we are not giving it more than its due. Perhaps we wonder most when we try to repeat in our own form the matter which pleased us, and discover that the charm has somehow gone out of it. Only when we go back to the book or poem do we see that the material was not cheap or mean, but was set forth with a lightness of touch which raised at once its value.

Here, for example, is a story by Mr. Bunner,1 which has already been told many times. A man, who has passed the period of youth, unexpectedly becomes the guardian of a young girl. She grows up under his eye, and the parental affection, if it ever could be called thus, undergoes a transition into the lover’s just as the more contemporaneous lover asserts himself, and so the elderly man wakes from his dream. The mere framework of the story is not especially new, and if one undertook to give even somewhat at length the argument of The Midge he would be likely to create the impression that the story was commonplace. Commonplace is the last term which one would apply to this book, and when one has read and enjoyed it the very simplicity of the structure remains in the mind as one element of the charm of the story.

For it is a merit of the book that the attention is given to making real two or three people who interest one, both for what they are themselves and for the quaint surroundings in which they are set; one is not diverted from these principal concerns by any series of ingenious adventures. The chief interest, as is right, is in the heroine, whose petite nature gives the title to the book. Lodoiska Agnes Hunt Talbot is a genuine creation, and the apparent ease with which Mr. Bunner evokes this graceful, naïve figure from the shadows of the French quarter in New York, realizes her personality, and then quietly lets her adjust herself to ordinary circumstances gives us very high expectations of what this novelist and poet may yet do. Mr. Bunner has been happy in discovering a new country for the uses of fiction. It is not certain how far it can be explored, and in his own work he intimates that it was only for a few years that the country could be said to exist at all; but the French quarter of New York is not another Leicester Square, and for the purposes of The Midge, at least, it is an extremely picturesque spot. The touches by which the Brasserie Pigault are set before the reader are few and felicitous ; the figures that are sketched in so lightly, the Goubaud family, Madame Pigault and the habitués of her brasserie, and Father Dubé, have just the necessary vitality, and their foreign air is genuine. Indeed, one may say that half the work is done when these characters are named, for we recognize them at once as “ characters,” just as we recognize the mild young rector as a lay figure, — such is the advantage which a foreigner has over the native in fiction ; he is already remote, while one has to push the native a little way off by some device of art, in order to give him an equally good perspective.

These lighter graces do not, however, make up the whole value of the book. The lightness which is best is that which hints at the serious, and Mr. Bunner wins his reader’s respect by the genuineness of his sentiment, the honesty of his occasional reflections, and the frequent solid sense of his judgment. The light touch, — yes, that is the thing; but we want also the firm hand, and that too we get in Mr. Bunner’s book.

It must be said, however, that the qualities of The Midge which we enjoy praising are more evident in the earlier parts of the book than in the later. One even begins to suspect that Mr. Bunner was less careful of his work when he was completing it than when he was engaged on the more original situations with which he was confronted when getting his characters into line. There is a little strain upon reasonableness when Dr. Peters, the guardian of the story, is made to forget young Hathaway, the lover, in his absorption in his own love affair. Love is blind, but that is to defects. Love is extremely sharpeyed under the conditions which held Dr. Peters and Hathaway ; and when the man was once made aware of the possible state of things, it is hard to believe that he could ever really be surprised again. The least effective part of the book, therefore, is the treatment of Dr. Peters after the scene in the brasserie when his suspicions regarding Hathaway and the Midge were aroused.

But if the psychology of the book is at fault here, it is strikingly true in the earlier parts, and especially in the development of the woman in Lodoiska. The scene where she offers to leave Dr. Peters is admirably faithful in its portrayal of a delicate and profound movement in the life of this fascinating little creature.

We have lingered over this book not so much because of the attractiveness of the story as because it holds that rare charm of lightness which is not so frequent in literature that we can dismiss it summarily. So, recognizing its value, we would note its presence in a book so slight of figure and so modest in bearing as to be in danger of escaping the attention of readers. Old Salem,2 however, will surely not escape the attention of readers of The Atlantic, for it was in the pages of the Monthly that most of its contents first appeared. These readers will be the first to welcome the book, for they will understand that, with all its fragmentariness, Old Salem is a distinct bit of literature. We may say that as in The Midge the choice of subject was half the book, so is it in Old Salem. Mr. Bunner laid open a quarter of New York which was new to people, yet old and familiar in all its humane and literary associations. The author of Old Salem could count at once on the intelligent and ready response of many readers. Salem has acquired so delightful an individuality that it only needs to represent it with art to win an audience, and those who read Old Salem Shops, A Salem Dame School, and Salem Cupboards, in The Atlantic, felt that here was a writer who knew Salem by heart.

Slight as the work in this book is, so far as regards matter and range of subject, it indicates a high degree of artistic power. No one could be so fine except after careful study and practice. The reserve which this writing shows is not wholly a gift; it is an attainment. A less trained writer would have been led into exaggerations and extravagance : the dainty sentences, which have about them the very air of the life they describe, are not such as usually fall from the pen of one who is trying a hand. Here, again, there is the light touch, and there is the firm hand, and it is the lightness without a shadow of mockery which makes us smile at the Old Salem figures and manners, while we are ready to show the courtesy which was ingrain with this writer.

The Midge quickens our hope for what its author may do. So also did the sketches which appeared in The Atlantic, and now form the body of this little book. The pity of it that we must say did. Mr. Bates, in his brief, delicate introduction, and by a word at the close, reminds us that in Old Salem we have a mere fragment of a whole which lay in a mind capable, we cannot doubt, of fulfilling the promise her readers had read in her work. Instead of hope we have regret, if we look away from the book itself. Yet the book remains, with all its broken character, a fine piece of literature ; something to value, not merely because we can never have another from its creator, but because it is in itself a delight.

The choiceness of these two books makes us a little impatient. Here we have been undertaking to make a survey of recent light literature, and all we can bring within the scope of the term, when we have raised it to its true height, is just two little books. It is rather hard, we think, that when summer comes and Nature touches us with all her airy graces, new literature about us should yield so small a harvest of that pleasure which comes from genuine light literature.

  1. The Midge. By H. C. BUNNER. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons. 1886.
  2. Old Salem. By ELEANOR PUTNAM. Edited by ALDO BATES. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin & Co. 1886.