New York in Recent Fiction

SINCE Mr. Howells makes a removal from Boston to New York a turning-point in the career of the married pair with whom he began to people his world of fiction, we may take the fact with equal seriousness, and accept his new novel1 as an announcement that the business of reporting life as it is has been transferred from a provincial to a metropolitan centre. To be sure, so long as Basil and Isabel March remain in New York, even if they occupy furnished apartments only, we may hope to have something of the New England point of view; but we notice signs in them of an increasing adjustment to their new environment, and we may yet have Boston as New York sees it.

We have our suspicion that if this writer had applied his present method and used his present power in the portraiture of life in New England, we should have had books of deeper truthfulness than those earlier novels, which we enjoyed not because they depicted life in Boston and its neighborhood, but because they were altogether delightful and did not disturb our sleep. For now Mr. Howells both charms us with his pictorial skill and banishes sleep from our eyelids. He began his career as a novelist with an indulgence in a humorous view of life, which contented itself with the lightest possible sketch of human nature in a few easily recognized varieties. Then his mind began to be stirred by problems which belong chiefly to the speculative period, and he essayed to carry his characters into a sort of no man’s land, and, rather unluckily for his art, built a novel upon the false bottom of Spiritualism. Next he wearied of his light-headed and nimble people who graced the world of fiction, and sought to get hold of the men and women who were nearer the soil, and to busy himself with motives and problems which must interest such. In his work here he was more uncertain : at one time he would use his old playful and light manner, which gave a sort of masquerading effect to his real men and women; at another, in his eagerness to share the life of his uncouth folk, he would recklessly throw away his grace, and even send his dainty English after it. We must confess that while we respect the Howells of the transitional period, we have found it pretty hard to read his fiction of that time, and we have been watching with patience and interest for that emergence into the domain of sane art which we were confident would come some day.

We hope we are not hasty in our welcome, but in this new novel Mr. Howells certainly seems to have come near adjusting the ethical and the aesthetic glasses with which he views life, so that they have the same focus. Of late there has been a sort of strabismic effect about his novels which has made them uncomfortable reading. When we are uncomfortable now, as we are after reading A Hazard of New Fortunes, we find fault with things in general and feebly with ourselves, but we acquit Mr. Howells. It would be a somewhat indelicate task to seek to trace the growth in this novelist’s own mind of his thought of life, though it is one of the penalties which such a writer pays for his popularity that if he grows at all he registers his successive stages of development in his successive books ; and we may content ourselves with the reflection that his latest book ought to be his ripest; but we cannot help thinking that New York has a great deal to do with the artistic freedom and breadth of A Hazard of New Fortunes, and it is only by reference to Mr. Howells as a philosopher that we can make this evident.

It needed, in other words, that this novelist, this painter of human life, should have a large canvas and an abundance of material to serve as a check both upon his settled habit of using minute touches and his somewhat unsystematized discontent with contemporaneous society. New York is so heterogeneous and so big, such a huddle of unrelated details, regarded superficially, and yet so fascinating in its unrecorded power, giving such frequent glimpses of an unsuspected solidarity of human life, that when Mr. Howells faced it, and, as hinted at in his character of Basil March, began to study it as a whole in a vagrant, desultory fashion, he shrank from that kind of reproduction which had satisfied him when he had smaller sections of life to report. To apply his detailed methods was palpably ridiculous ; to select types and imagine he was giving a comprehensive artistic whole was equally vain ; to arraign this vast hive of humanity, or to square it with dilettante views of a regenerated society, would strike any one with Mr. Howells’s sense of humor as nonsense. Instead, Mr. Howells discovered, by an instinct which is more valuable than any theories of literary art, that out of this great heap of material before him he must select a few men and women ; that they must have something to do with each other; that they must be a society within a larger whole. Then, with the great roaring city encompassing this small company, he had life enough in volume, and he could afford to let its tremendous problems just touch the inner circle of life upon which his attention was more closely directed. His native interest in the characters he creates is an element always to be counted on in Mr. Howells’s work ; and in his desire to find a few persons who should give him an opportunity to illustrate some of the phases of the great problem which one encounters who sees the rich and the poor, and the Lord the Maker of them all, he gave a peculiar vividness to the whole group that form his novel.

It may be said further that, under these conditions, he had less need of a dramatic story. With so strong a sense of the great drama going on about his men and women, he could let them play their own trifling comedies without detaching them from actual contact with the real world in which they were living. Indeed, he is so much impressed with the mighty flow of human life in the world of New York that he is scarcely conscious, as so genuine a humorist would be, of the whimsical nature of the enterprise which forms the apparent cause of the story. Basil March moves to New York for the purpose of taking charge of a literary journal, which is to be conducted upon a rather vaguely described plan of cooperation. It looks a little as if Mr. Howells had at first a notion of showing how even literature might hope, in a new social order, to enjoy all the profit which publishers now get over and above the pittance they bestow on the authors who give them something to publish. But if he had any such notion, he lost sight of it; for the enterprise of Every Other Week is quite orthodox, so far as the reader can see, and without the aid of the financial backer would lose its raison d’être in this novel.

So little does the reader miss the story element that he is willing, or ought to be, to follow the Marches up and down the streets of New York, as they look for a furnished apartment, to the extent of the entire first part, and to have Fulkerson’s wooing of Miss Woodburn go on under his nose without his perceiving it. The treatment of these two elements in the story and of the love passages in general illustrates very well the attitude which Mr. Howells takes in his art, in this latest manifestation of it. At first sight, it is monstrous that the reader should be called upon to go in imagination with Mr. and Mrs. March as they exercise their wits upon the problem of settling themselves in New York. The clever method which Mr. Howells applied to the description of his travail in buying a horse he applies now to this very trivial matter of hiring apartments, but there is both a conscious and an unconscious use of the method. He wishes in the course of this first part to set several of his characters on their feet; he wishes also to hint at certain phases of poverty to which he means to return; and then he is enamored of his immediate subject, and forgets what he is going to do in the pure delight of describing the experience of his couple. Yet with all this there is a movement which we suspect the novelist himself scarcely recognized, though he may have been subconscious of it; we mean the slow approach to the heart of his subject, the retardation of one who is reluctant to attack a mighty theme. If this book were the first in a new Comédie Humaine, the introductory chapters would be a very good prelude. As it is, the orchestra never sweeps one away with a rush of harmonies, and when we have finished the book we are aware of a certain disproportionate space given to the introduction. After all, we cannot invest the arrival of Mr. and Mrs. March upon the scene of their future life with quite the importance which their creator would seem to intimate. Yet we like this portion for the very reason that it hints at a willingness of the novelist to use his power humorously and with due regard to the complexity of life. He is to be serious in his general themes, — of that we are quite sure; there are to be no more merely entertaining Chance Acquaintances and Wedding Journeys ; but we know also that he cannot help a genuine love of play.

Again, the love passages in the book are not climacteric. His characters do not exist for the sake of getting married ; and the freedom of will which Miss Alma Leighton achieves gives one a notion that in the domain where Mr. Howells has won some of his signal successes, the heart, namely, of a willful young woman, he is likely to score even greater victories. We do not trouble ourselves much about Mr. Howells’s theories of fiction, and when he is in the full ardor of the chase after his own prey he forgets them himself; but we can conceive that in the widening range of his powers he will come to a more delicate perception of all the forces which move men and women; and this novel shows how indifferent he is to that one passion which has so largely occupied the thoughts of novel-writers.

It is interesting to note how large a number of the persons figuring in this story are still the kind of persons with whom we have already become familiar in Mr. Howells’s writings. They are not repetitions, but they belong to the same general class. It is to be expected that a literary enterprise should bring to the front characters who are artists or allied with artists, but then Mr. Howells chose to make the story turn upon a literary enterprise. In other words, he is using the old figures of his imaginative world, but he is infusing them with new blood. It is on this score that we regard his book as a strong indication of growth in literary power. The character of Alma Leighton is firmly modeled, but the clay is the old clay. Beaton is a very delicate study, almost over-refined, but the conception compels very delicate shading. It is noticeable that Mr. Howells here trusts more than is common with him to analysis; he finds himself obliged to make a report of Beaton’s mind; the other minds give an account of themselves. Conrad is in very low relief as a figure, but how admirably the character is hinted at! We may regard this personage as an experiment, and we should not be surprised if Mr. Howells returned with pleasure to creations of this sort. It is, in truth, as his new thoughts on life are formulated in character that he may count on the interest of his readers. Fulkerson is a masterpiece. This gay fellow, with his narrow escape from vulgarity, his almost miraculous salvation from being taken at his own valuation, really provides the salt which saves Every Other Week from decay as a basis of the story; and we have not found so diverting an average American this many a day. We are not so sure about the Woodburns. The colonel seems studied from photographs rather than from life, and Miss Woodburn seems merely put in to keep for future convenience. Perhaps part of our indifference to these two persons arises from the great difficulty we have found with their vowels. There is a rigid conscience about Mr. Howells when he makes us acquainted with Miss Woodburn’s speech which we try in vain to appreciate. He insists upon our taking her conversation raw; we would rather have it boiled, like that of other human beings.

He is much more successful in his conveyance of Lindau’s German-silver English, and it is when we come to Lindau himself, and to Dryfoos, with his untamed daughters, his pathetically conceived wife, and his martyr son, that we find ourselves in the heart of the story and in the secret of Mr. Howells’s great gain as a novelist. We cannot say that these figures are more deftly handled than others which he has fashioned, but they mean more. They ally themselves distinctly with greater problems, with deeper insight of life, and our confidence in Mr. Howells is increased because of the wise reserve which he has used. They are not instruments in his hand for breaking the false gods of the Philistines; they are men and women into whom he has breathed the breath of life; but that breath comes from a profounder inspiration than he was wont to draw. And it is for this reason that, as we intimated at the outset, his book fills the reader with a divine discontent. What he did crudely in A Modern Instance, and thus irritatingly to most, he does here with firmness and delicacy, — in a word, as an artist who sees into his creations, and tells less than he knows to the reader. Because he does this, because his characters throb with a life which is in contact with great currents of thought and passion, the book is lifted to a higher level, and its power over the reader is greater. The uneasy hedonist may explain Lindau and Conrad away, but there they are, and somehow one cannot stop his ears to that torrent of New York humanity in which they were drowned. Nor can we fail to see in March and his attitude a generous charity on the part of the author for the perplexed lover of his kind, — the man who sees the injustice in which he bears an unwilling part, is opening his eyes gradually to the inconsistencies of modern civilization, yet is painfully aware of his own helplessness, and knows enough only to do the nearest duty. There are few finer things in this most interesting book than March’s words to his family after he had told Dryfoos of Lindau’s death, and again when commenting on the change that had taken place in Dryfoos. There is a sincerity about this honest gentleman which goes far to dissipate the notion of unreality attaching to his occupation. Somehow or other, journalism, when it gets into literature, has a very unsubstantial air.

There are several particulars in which Mr. Howells’s story and Mr. Warner’s latest essay in fiction 2 have a common cause, but we content ourselves with referring only to that which induces us to couple them in the title of this paper. Mr. Warner also appears to have been struck by New York as a mirror of modern life, but his attention has been concentrated on a single phase, — the insidiousness with which wealth quickly acquired eats into the finer nature. His theme is a very simple one, but is played in many variations. The reader is introduced to a girl of noble qualities and sensitiveness to impressions, and is asked to witness how her nature is slowly undermined by the silent approaches of the enemy of all spiritual things, the unrighteous Mammon. He will observe no marked changes in the superficial nature of the woman. She remains throughout the book as gracious, as kind, as beautiful, as when she first appears to the little chorus of the story, the neighborly circle in a country town, that discusses from time to time the problems suggested by the tale. Her circumstances change: she passes from this seclusion and this little society of cultivated men and women into the very conspicuous circles of New York society ; she exchanges a moderate living for one of steadily increasing munificence, and, step by step, rises in the scale of splendor, until she has what, in the eyes of the world, is a commanding position, the wife of one of the richest men in New York, the mistress of a superb establishment, in possession of all that refined taste can buy, and unstained by any breath of scandal. The task which Mr. Warner set himself was to indicate the slow but steady deterioration of the woman herself at the core, the gradual creeping in of the paralysis of her spiritual faculties, the dying out of that lire on the hearth which was kindled and kept alive in the sweet sobriety of her maidenhood.

It is an interesting intimation of the prevailing taste in fiction that Mr. Warner, with this subject before him, adopts the manner of the naturalist school instead of having recourse to that which is wearisome in its use of psychological analysis. He has made this analysis for himself, but when he comes to illustrate the downfall of Margaret Debree he gives the steps by which its course proceeded, not the steps by which the process was interpreted in his own mind. He employs a few crucial incidents and a great deal of conversation. The incidents have little about them that is dramatic, and the conversation, though often epigrammatic, is more often playful, besides having that graceful badinage which charms without unduly exciting the reader. He employs also the action and interaction of characters, the main figures being Margaret; Mr. Lyon, the incipient earl whom she rejects; Henderson, the New York broker whom she marries; and Carmen Eschelle, the pretty, evil genius of the story, who marries Henderson on the last page of the book, when he had been a widower a year and eight months. None of the personages are invested with such highly accented virtues or vices as to take them out of the range of normal human beings. Indeed, the naturalness of the characters, the conversation, and the incidents gives not only lifelikeness to the book, but causes the moral to penetrate the reader’s mind far more surely than if the author had given the narrative an exceptional character. To many the story will doubtless seem tame, but it will by reason of this very evenness find readers who would be indifferent to a more spicy novel ; and the pervading humor and wise satire of the author will forbid any one who can be interested in the theme itself to lay the book aside after it is once begun.

This naturalness, which is Mr. Warner’s safeguard in the absence of any engrossing plot of circumstance, has been indeed something of a snare to him, for it has led him into a solecism of art which a story-teller more sure of his story-telling powers and more scrupulous in the use of means would have avoided. The story opens, as we have intimated, with a picture of a small society of cultivated men and women, of whom Margaret Debree is one ; and another is the teller of the tale, a Mr. Fairchild, for whose name, we may remark, we have had to hunt through the book, so rarely is it mentioned. The book begins with a “ We,” which stands for the little society, and the story slides easily into its natural waters. The reader commits himself to the care of Mr. Fairchild, who is the guide that is to lead him through the world in which Margaret’s journey is made. There are certain advantages to be had in the use of the autobiographic form in a novel, and certain disadvantages. Scott used the form occasionally with great skill. Mr. James, we remember, has used it once, at least, with such pertinacious conscientiousness as to rob himself of all its advantages and entangle himself in all its fetters. Mr. Warner plainly resorts to the form on much the same principle as did Thackeray, — for the purpose of giving an air of naturalness to the story; but having done this, he appears to think his Mr. Fairchild is absolved from any further obligation. Once, as if aware of the indefensible position in which he has placed this apparently virtuous gentleman, he falls back on a sort of sotto voce announcement that since Margaret’s death he has come into possession of her letters to her aunt, Miss Forsythe. Mr. Fairchild, moreover, is present on several occasions, and his testimony on the stand would be good so far as the knowledge of an eye and ear witness at such times would go.

But what can he know of all those private passages between Margaret and her husband, to say nothing of the scene when she rejects Mr. Lyon ? Who furnished him with the details of that interview ? Margaret ? She was too good at the time, and too much a woman of the world in her later career, to be so gauche. Mr. Lyon? Rejected suitors may remember, but they don’t usually tell. And merely by the way, has not Mr. Warner gone dangerously near the edge of propriety in the use of this character ? Englishmen in training for the peerage are not so common in real life that lifelikeness must be gained in fiction at the expense of identification.

We shall be told that this use of the autobiographical form is a mere convention, and no more to be tried by ordinary rules of life than the deafness of persons on the stage when asides are thrown out. This lame answer may satisfy the ordinary novel-monger, but Mr. Warner’s novel belongs to the new school, where probability makes the laws and the usual reigns supreme; and we insist that a discreet workman will not make the staple from which his chain hangs the weakest part of the chain. If Mr. Warner means to use the novelform in future for the setting forth of all that his observation and experience and reflection have furnished him, he will not lessen his power by attention to so primary a law as he has broken in this case. That he will give us more novels we sincerely trust; for as long as the great majority of people learn to think of the problems of life through fiction, we must be grateful to one who writes so humanely, with such shrewd insight of character, who has so much genuine humor, and who is able to use so skillfully the instrument of conversation. To read this book is to listen to the talk of well-bred persons who are interested in things, in men, and not merely in criticism of things and men, — who are prophets, in their way, using that word not so much in its derived sense of prediction as in its native sense of interpretation of things high to men low.

  1. A Hazard of New Fortunes. By WILLIAM DEAN HOWELLS. New York: Harper & Brothers. 1890.
  2. A Little Journey in the World. By CHARLES DUDLEY WARNER. New York: Harper & Brothers. 1889.