Recent American Fiction
FICTION has become so voluminous an expression of mental activity that we find ourselves setting a peculiar value on individuality. There are ever so many novels published which are fairly pleasing ; they have interesting stories, introduce one to well-bred persons, emit epigrammatic sparks, occasionally set one to thinking, and though we never think of reading them twice, and often go through such with a hop, skip, and a jump, we have no great fault to find with them. They have made an hour pass agreeably, they have produced a little diversion, and we should be churlish indeed if we refused to sign a certificate of their good behavior.
But now and then a novel lifts its head out of the crowd and asks for distinct recognition. It may not be vastly better than the crowd, but it differs from its neighbors, — differs in essentials, not in mere superficial qualities ; it has, in a word, individuality. There is that about it which denotes a self-centred life. We do not confound it with other novels. It may even differ distinctly from other books by the same author, and whether we like it overmuch or not, it makes an impression upon us. We welcome it as an addition to our literary acquaintance. Still further, we recognize now and then among individual novels a book which has a flavor of its own, although this is commonly to be affirmed of all books by the same author, — a certain incommunicable grace, an emanation of personality. This is style, and in its finest expression is uncopied, uncopyable. It is the citadel of spiritual power, the heart of a book.
Bonaventure 1 has individuality. It arrests attention at once by the certainty, the firm modeling, the precision, with which characters and scenes are presented. The reader, unless he be very much on the defensive, quickly surrenders himself to a writer who moves as if he knew the way and the end he meant to reach. Though the locality is mainly the old ground of Mr. Cable’s novels, the reader soon finds that Mr. Cable has a new story to tell. When he lays the book aside, he is aware of having received a distinct impression. Some things have jarred on him, but he has been interested out of proportion to any development of plot. Nature and the persons he has been thrown with have been new to him. He has been in the company of an individual book, and, as often happens in such cases, he has not so much thought of the book generically, as a novel, as he has specifically, as the disclosure of the secrets of a few human beings.
But Bonaventure has style also, and it is a style which establishes the identity of authorship with The Grandissimes and Dr. Sevier, while it discloses the growth of Mr. Cable’s power. When The Grandissimes appeared, we called attention to the fact that the book was in effect a parable, and owed what integrity it possessed to the controlling purpose in the author’s mind of presenting the problem of the reorganization of Southern society. Bewildering as the book was, even the apparently detached story of Bras-Coupé, to most the single spot of light in the book, could be made to fall into place under the unifying intention. In Dr. Sevier, Mr. Cable essayed to work out through personal relations certain problems which vexed him regarding poverty and labor. In this book, he was getting nearer to an artistic form, though we are bound to say that Dr. Sevier, with its less divided interest, was not so attractive a book as the somewhat floundering The Grandissimes.
In Bonaventure, Mr. Cable sets himself another task. He thinks he sees the power which resides in knowledge, and he takes for the scene, in which to work out the regeneration of man through knowledge, the home of the Acadians of Louisiana; for he finds in this people an admirable illustration of a society which has been unstirred by the leaven of knowledge. But here, as in former instances, he interests himself with two or three characters ; and inasmuch as his field of experiment is more limited, — for slavery and freedom, poverty and labor, both offer more general problems than illiteracy and knowledge, — he is by so much drawn into the more legitimate province of art, which has to do with persons in their relations one to another. That is to say, Bonaventure gradually ceases in the reader’s mind to be an educational tract, and becomes a romance, with pastoral scenes and idyllic incidents ; but before the reader could have reached this conclusion the author must have known a retreat of the philanthropist and an advance of the artist. Instead of a dénoûment consisting in the establishment of a common-school system in Acadian Louisiana, we have a double wedding; the artist was too much for the theorist, and we are heartily glad of it. Mr. Cable needs to take but one more step to become a great artist; he is haunted by ghosts of purpose. Let his fine purposes be wholly dramatized, and no longer consciously possess him, when he is writing books.
This present romance has a capital illustration of what we are pointing out. By all odds, the best passage in it is the inimitable examination scene, in which Bonaventure rises to the height of his noble, limited nature. This schoolmaster, whom Mr. Cable would have us to believe was fed on educational aphorisms, is put to a test which would have broken down a figure merely designed to carry forward a theory. It is because he was dramatically conceived and had the love of his creator in him that he is supreme above the grotesque. Mr. Cable has done wisely in suffering this scene to be the climax of Bonaventure’s personal adventure ; after that he retires to be the fine, half-heroic inspiration of the other characters. On the other hand, the figures of Mr. George Washington Tarbox, the book-agent who develops into contractor and lover, and of Claude, who is Bonaventure’s pupil, are weak, because they draw their life, not from a breath of the artist infused into the clay of human nature, but from theories of education. Mr. Cable apparently means that both of these characters shall express the influence of one noble nature acting upon them, and also disclose the power which knowledge has in enlarging and directing latent capacity. But the reader perceives that Bonaventure was noble through the conquest of self which he achieved, and his educational conception took on its strength only through the informing power of a guileless and loving spirit. Tarbox is essentially vulgar. He is surprised into an acknowledgment of a higher ideal when he comes into contact with Bonaventure, but there is not evidence enough to convince us that the surprise worked a radical change in his nature, and we are still further skeptical of his ability to expand into a largeminded man through the action of his native shrewdness. Claude is commonplace, with the romanticism of youth. Mr. Cable fails to turn his development from an ignorant peasant into a clever inventor to such account as to persuade us that his character grew noble under the influence of education and material success.
In a word, though much pains is taken with these two characters, they fail to move us, and we think they never profoundly moved their creator. Pierre, the father of Claude, is much more of a true creation, for he is built of elemental human emotions, and is not a product of superficial culture. Yet we should not like to leave the reader with the impression that the last part of the book is ineffective. In character-drawing, Mr. Cable does not surpass his Bonaventure, but the cunning of his art when applied to incident and description is quite as markworthy in the latter as in the earlier part of the book. The vividness of his writing is a delight. It is true that he is sometimes overcome by his passion for having a secret with himself, and lets his Tarbox go through certain contortions which are a mystery to on-lookers, and known only to Tarbox and his creator ; but such a fault only calls attention to the skill with which this artist throws himself into the delineation of single passages. The power which Mr. Cable possesses of seeing particulars is extraordinary. It is this which enables him to light up single scenes with a marvelous intensity of color ; it is this which makes him a great colorist, and, when the scene makes the whole story, a splendid painter of miniatures, as his short sketches and stories and the episodes in his longer books testify. With the growing faculty for composition which his successive novels intimate, we yet hope to see him great in wholes as in particulars ; but until his minuteness of vision has become also generosity of sight, so that the world of his art is not governed by some doctrinaire spectre, we must look for the disappointment which Bonaventure causes. There is always keenness of disappointment when an author fails to satisfy the hopes which he has raised.
It does not take long, after one has made his way into the next novel on our list, to discover that the author has set herself no task beyond her power. We speak of the author of Queen Money2 as a woman. There are fifty chances in our favor for the conjecture, and as we cannot be bothered, in writing of this book, by a constant resort to periphrastic phrase, we boldly take the chances, and relieve the reader of any argument to prove that we are right. She, then, — this supposititious woman, to whom we take off our hat at once, not merely because she is a woman, but because she is an uncommonly clever one, whose cleverness we should not like to bring down on us by any lack of civility on our part, — had it in mind to trace the influence of the greed for wealth upon a section of contemporaneous society, and she chose for the scene of her operations what may be called the heart of New York. She takes a young man of high ideals, brings him from the shelter of a cultivated home in the country, and places him close to the centre of that throbbing life which has for its nearest exponents a few brokers and capitalists, a group of journalists, and as contiguous, a segment of that ancient aristocratic circle which vies with wealth in its assumption of superiority to fateThere is also a garden in the midst of this tumultuous activity, — a household where two or three old men and a graceful girl pursue a calm life of art, apparently unheedful of the stir about them.
The materials for a story are abundant, and as the writer allows herself to be controlled by a simple theme, she is able to give herself up to a free narrative of the career of her hero, young Otto March. He is not a hero in the strife. The effective art of the writer makes him almost throughout the story to be a somewhat passive agent. These eager men and women who are jostling each other are for the purposes of the story revolving about him, but they are not over-aware that he is the centre of interest. Nor is the reader much affected by this consideration. In some novels, the hero is marked at the outset, and the eye becomes fatigued with the exertion of watching him through all the involutions and convolutions of the story, since the author compels the reader to keep an eye on him. Here we have nothing of the sort. We feel from the start that this young man is to be the last to leave the printed page, and it is not long before we are equally sure of his mate, but our interest is attracted to something more than the fortunes of one man and one woman. It is as if we were watching a play, where every character was so well cast that though we knew perfectly well there were principals and subordinates, we were always interested, whoever appeared on the scene. This is the perfection of harmony in the setting of a play, and it is this harmony of parts which excites our admiration in Queen Money. The plot is not elaborate, and we anticipate its general conclusion long before we reach the end of the book ; but neither has it any highly exaggerated situations; our interest does not depend on the few crises of the story. What does interest us is the cleverness with which the author avails herself of the situations which arise simply and naturally out of the given relations which subsist between the several persons who constitute the cast. A dinner-party, a private ball, a flurry in the money-market, a flirtation, the death of a young girl, whose parents, loving her, were yet allowing themselves to drift apart from each other, — these are not singular situations, but they all play their part simply and harmoniously, and the reader encounters each with no jaded feeling of having been there before. In no one scene, perhaps, is the author’s cleverness shown more successfully than in her management of the millionaire’s dinner. The incident is scarcely necessary to the development of the story, but neither is it in the least impertinent, and both author and reader take a hearty enjoyment in the whimsical, but not outré exhibition. The author’s faculty of invention is not uncommon, but what strikes us is her sensible use of such invention as she has. In one case, to be sure, that of the mysterious appearance of the fish served for dinner, she gives us the impression that such a ridiculous incident did once occur, and that she invented the whole dinner-party for the sake of using a humorous fact, but in the main the absence of exaggeration is noticeable. She knows that her incidents are ordinary, and she does not strain them for effect, or pretend that they have any unusual character ; but she bends her force to making every incident tell through the liveliness of its presentation, and she succeeds admirably.
The ethical intent of the book is not obtruded, and there are no ghastly morals, yet the whole outcome of the story is distinctly and refreshingly healthful and tonic. The book is not a great book, but it is a level one, with honesty of art and a clear restriction by the author to subjects within her power, which gives us a sense, not of great reserve power which may some day break forth into a notable book, but of that equipoise which assures us the writer knows what she can do, and means to do it openly and heartily every time she essays to write a novel. The readableness of Queen Money is quite enough to bring it many readers, and we are sure that its wit, its penetrating sense, and its sanity will make it last in the mind much longer than a merely entertaining story.
In a strict classification, we should hesitate to place Mr. Bellamy’s Looking Backward 3 under the head of Fiction. The story element is more subordinate, even, than it need be, and the reader who is in search of entertainment soon discovers that the author is too much in earnest to take any advantage of the opportunities which his whimsy afford him for diverting nonsense. The book is, in truth, a contribution to social and economic philosophy under the guise of an imaginary retrospect, taken a century and more hence by a man who is able to make a comparison between the two periods, through the fortunate accident of going to sleep in one period and awaking in the next. We say retrospect, but should rather say aspect, for the book contains the observations made during the later period, and the contrast lies more in the reader’s mind than in the formal comparison.
It is very evident that Mr. Bellamy is not amusing himself with a playful fancy of what the world may some day become when its inhabitants shall have found the coincidence of the economic law and the law of love. He feels intensely the bitter inequalities of the present order, and he thinks he sees the remedy in an industrial organization of society which shall not merely be coterminous with national boundaries, but shall itself be the nation. The dream of socialism, which was outlined in Mr. Gronlund’s suggestive book, The Coöperative Commonwealth, sees the assumption of all powers by the national government, so that each person becomes hardly more than a puppet, moved by the will of the whole people. Mr. Bellamy discloses the practical operation in the system as seen in the city of Boston. He introduces his awakened hero to a family of three, a doctor, his wife, and his daughter, and then, chiefly by means of conversation, makes him acquainted with the economy of social life. The hero sees no one but these three, and hears no testimony from any one else, except, indeed, that he listens to a sermon of which he is the text, and he is no match for the doctor in argument. To be sure, he puts in but a feeble defense of the wretched nineteenth century in which he fell asleep, and if we were called on to send an advocate into the latter end of the twentieth century we should choose one who would not be bowled over so easily. We fancy that Dr. Johnson, for instance, if rudely awaked now, would lay about him in a very vigorous fashion, and that any Dr. Leete, with his calm assumption of the superiority of a democracy to a corrupt tory government, who might measure swords with him would find his own weapon needed sharpening.
The prime defect of Mr. Bellamy’s argument for universal industrial organization is in its ignoring of human nature. When we order our goods by sample from the great store in our city ward, have our credit ticket punched, and the goods sent to our house by pneumatic tubes, we shall be just the same men and women that we are to-day, precisely as we have essential community with the men and women who existed before James Watt saw his kettle boil. But Mr. Bellamy’s men and women have rid themselves of poverty, and with poverty have lost all their claws and stings. It is not very difficult to picture a world of amiability ; all one needs is to eliminate certain passions and ugly vices. A hundred and thirteen years will suffice for this, in Mr. Bellamy’s philosophy. By the bye, we wonder that Dr. Leete, in his complacent commentary on the twentieth century, has nothing to say respecting the devil of intemperance, which was still switching its forked tail when Mr. West lay down to his century-long nap. There are other troublesome nightmares from which we should like to wake into the calm daylight of Mr. West’s Boston of 2000, but we get no imaginary relief in this book, Mr. Bellamy has also blinked the most valuable part of his subject: an explanation, namely, of the process by which the change was brought about. Could he not, from that library in which he seems only to have read a little fiction, have withdrawn some book which gave account of the steps in the mighty revolution, — a book of annals, for instance, of the years 1887—1937, during which most of the great work was achieved ?
It is interesting to see how, under the influence of this optimistic socialism, a sturdy individualism seems to have vanished. The persons whom Mr. West encounters are thin, ghostlike articles of a great frame; their individual cliaractenstics are but slightly accented. We have met, of course, such faint figures in novels before, but not in Mr. Bellamy’s novels. We recall well some striking personages to whom he has introduced us, but they breathed in the noxious air of the nineteenth century ; these creations of his, who smile and talk in the exhausted air receiver of the twentieth century, are hardly to be remembered after one has closed the book.
Yet it is impossible for a generous mind to be unmoved by the contrast which Mr. Bellamy draws between the nineteenth century, with its fierce struggle for life, and the twentieth, when the lion and the lamb lie side by side, the Hon with his claws pared and eating grass. One of the cleverest touches in the book is in the surprise which awaits the reader at its close. Mr. West awakes from this dream of a millennium, and the reader is half impatient at this cheap explanation, so familiar in moral tales ; but he reads on, and suddenly discovers that the apparent awakening into 1887 is only a dream itself, — that the millennium of the twentieth century is the reality. There are many shrewd observations, some noteworthy attempts at indicating the trend of present social movements, and above all, as we have said, an earnest cry for the peace of human brotherhood, — a cry which resounds through the book, and is far more effective a sermon to selfish minds than the vague generalities which fill the actual sermon preached in the hearing of Mr. West.
Fiction nowadays concerns itself with so wide a range of topics that the reviewer of recent books may pick and choose, so as to take up, when he lays down a novel on the reconstruction of society, a book which is delightfully free from any shadow of moral purpose, Bostonians, trained by means of cards for home use at the Public Library, may be getting ready for the adoption of Mr. Bellamy’s credit-card system, but we suspect that Mr. Bellamy would ask to be allowed an extra century for making over the Irishman in Ireland. What the English, with their distressful ignorance of him, will do beyond driving him still wilder, we cannot say, but they may catch a glimpse of his real nature if they will only read Mr. McAnally’s Irish Wonders.4 Mr. McAnally tells us that he picked up the stories in his book from the lips of the people themselves, and he has made this emphatic by retelling them in Irish brogue. The reader of Carleton and Lever, if he does not recognize the stories as the same which those writers have given him, discovers the same spirit at play in them. We are inclined to think that the stories are both genuine and new. They have not too much invention about them to discredit this view, and they have the Irish flavor to perfection. We may have our several opinions as to Ireland politically, but the superstitions and fairy lore of the country, the happy-go-lucky character of the peasantry and their cheerful improvidence, give a common ground for all except the hopelessly statistical. Even the philosophically-minded may extract some nutriment from these amusing tales ; indeed, we are all of us so haunted by Ireland that we suspect many, when they lay down the book, will fall to considering how far away these imaginative people are from that consciousness of political nature which lies at the basis of modern organized society. Why can we not keep Ireland as a nursery for the imagination, as we keep Switzerland for an out-door gymnasium ? There is nothing in these fantastic stories which gives any hint that they are moribund. On the contrary, they impress the reader with the notion that they are a mere handful of wildflowers, gathered at random in a field which yields much more of this kind than of useful grain. In England and America these flowers are hothouse plants. In Ireland they are native, and grow carelessly and freely. Mr. Heaton has caught capitally the spirit of the stories in his lively, dashing pictures, and has managed to give the Irish humor without touching it in that caricaturing temper which is so sure to possess the ordinary draughtsman, who sees the Irishman only when he is in the transitional naturalization period.
No one can accuse Mr. Crawford of over-production so long as what he produces adds to the stock of honest literature, and the readers of Paul Patoff may take up the shorter story, Marzio’s Crucifix,5 with confidence that they will suffer no reaction of interest. Not that the smaller book draws upon tire same kind of interest as the larger ; one may properly infer that the author, like other vigorous workers, has found a measure of relief in bringing into use a new set of intellectual muscles, and readers whose ears prick at the mention of this active young novelist may thank him for affording them a new kind of intellectual pleasure.
With a very few figures, we may say, indeed, with one figure reflected from four or five others, Mr. Crawford has shown something of the same kind of literary workmanship which he praises in the craft of his hero. Marzio is a silversmith of Rome, master in an art which has well-nigh perished in Italy, and the chief productions of his art are holy vessels used in the altar service of the church. He is indebted for most of his orders to his brother Paolo, who is a priest and secretary to a Roman cardinal. But Marzio himself is not only an unbeliever, but a bitter enemy to the existing order in Church and State ; a revolutionist in spirit and speech, and lacking only the opportunity, one would at first say, to be one in action. He has a young assistant, who bids fair to carry forward his master’s traditions in art, and is also a disciple in politics and a lover of Marzio’s daughter. As regards incident, the story is of the slightest. The appeal is to the interest which the reader feels in tracing the movement of Marzio’s mind through a murder which is in intention only. The man is a coward, and when his cowardice stands revealed, the glimpse which one gets of the interior of his nature is very illuminating. Mr. Crawford labors to show the contradictions, which have a superficial incongruity but a real, substantial root, in the composition of Marzio’s character. The somewhat dry light in which this author’s subjects are accustomed to shine agrees well with the purpose of tins book, and the reader finds himself interested and curious, but not too sympathetic. It is noticeable that in his eagerness to attract attention to his central figure, Mr. Crawford has, so to speak, lowered the tone of all the other characters, so that the reader unwittingly takes them all at somewhat less than their real value, is a little incredulous of the ardor with which the lovers regard each other,
and has for a time something of Marzio’s own dislike of Paolo. We have no fear that Mr. Crawford will join the ranks of the analytical novelists. When he essays anything comparable with their work, the characteristic outwardness of his whole scheme of fiction serves as a healthy protection against a too intimate and subtle corrosive of life. Our interest in this writer is such that we cannot help regarding his relation to his art as well as the individual products, and we are disposed to think that Marzio’s Crucifix is a tentative venture, which has value as an artist’s study, but is not likely to lead to any positively new style or singular development.
- Bonaventure: a Prose Pastoral of Acadian Louisiana. By GEORGE W. CABLE. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons. 1888.↩
- Queen Money. By the Author of The Story of Margaret Kent. Boston: Ticknor & Co. 1888.↩
- Looking Backward. 2000-1887. By EDWARD BELLAMY. Boston: Ticknor & Co. 1888.↩
- Irish Wonders. The Ghosts, Giants, Pookas, Demons, Leprechawns, Banshees, Fairies, Witches, Widows, Old Maids, and other marvels of the Emerald Isle. Popular Tales as told by the People. By D. R. MCANALLY, JR. Illustrated by H. R. HEATON. Boston and New York : Houghton, Mifflin & Co. 1888.↩
- Marzio’s Crucifix. By F. MARION CRAWFORD. London : Macmillan & Co. 1887.↩