A Few Story-Tellers, Old and New

WHEN the king, or the chief, or whoever had the ordering of his own entertainment, sent for the skald, the improvisator, the story-teller, or the jester, in the days when men were listeners, and not readers, there must have been moments when his majesty, as he saw the familiar figure approach, doubted if he were not to hear the same old story once more ; even the story of one’s prowess or the prowess of one’s ancestors loses its charm after indefinite repetition. And what must have been the emotions of the story-teller at the same moment, as he looked anxiously on the man who was at once listener, critic, and executioner, and reflected that the story in hand was but a variation on an old theme ? Yet even absence of novelty, in those days as in these, must have had its compensation in grace of story-telling. The listener may well have said to himself, The same old story, to be sure, but at any rate I know he will tell it clearly. And the story-teller may have felt a consciousness of power. as he selected one incident after another from his memory, and used his best words in narrative. As Emerson said of the stories he heard at English dinner tables, they “ are so good that one is sure they must have been often told before, to have got such happy turns.”

Here, for example, is the modern skald, Mr. Crawford, coming before his many-headed listener—the more heads to hear, the more to nod sleepily if driven to it — with a new and yet old story in Pietro Ghisleri.1 San Giacinto, Gianforte Campodonico, Spicca, Sant’ Ilario, — these and other names which occur in the new story are familiar enough to readers of the Italian stories which were brilliantly introduced by Saracinesca. Mr. Crawford has made a section of Italian society as thoroughly his own as Trollope and Mrs. Oliphant have done with English and Scottish society. The figures in one book may be principals, in another subordinates, according to the exigencies of the narrative. But one does not think of these figures as passing from one book to another ; he thinks of the books as more or less complete records of the experience of this or that person. The reality of the persons who carry on the society is in the novelist’s mind before he has undertaken to reproduce these persons in his books, we may say ; consequently, he moves with such certainty in the world which he has called into being out of the unordered individualities of modern Italian life that he imparts his confidence to the reader. Nothing is more comfortably assuring to a reader than to know, when he puts himself into the hands of an author, that he will be held firmly, and carried straight to the conclusion of the whole matter. Mr. Crawford’s readers know from the start that he has thought his story out to the end, and will tell it clearly, without circumlocution, yet with sufficient fullness of detail. Herein, we think, lies the secret of this writer’s genuine popularity. He refuses to fall into classification as a realist or romanticist; but he avoids the schools not by aiming at some individualism of his own; he secures his place by a regard for the fundamental canons of the art of fiction. He conceives his characters; he regards them in their relation to one another and to an actual world ; he selects, — what true artist does not select? — and his characters and incidents fit into and explain one another. Always there is evidence of the cool-headed, keen, alert judge of men and women and their actions ; always the narrative moves forward, even in the passionate passages, with a reasonableness which commends itself to the intelligent reader.

It is in this skill of construction that we think Mr. Crawford’s peril lies, and we cannot help sounding the note of danger after reading Pietro Ghisleri. Let the reader recall Anthony Trollope’s novels, and he will be aware that the Englishman, though in a way the prophet of matter of fact, was possessed by his stories ; that something very like a Greek fate seized his characters, after the author of their being had once set them on foot, and hurried them forward to an inevitable end. Mr. Crawford, on the other hand, seems never to lose his hold of the fortune of his figures. He moves, directs, arranges, completes. It is true his figures are not puppets, and his ordering of their ways is masterly. But the exercise of this controlling power breeds the desire for more power, and leads almost by necessity to delicacy of manipulation, to intricacy of plot. Now, the more human a novelist’s figures are, the more the reader instinctively resents a too subtle disposition of their actions, and an attempt at adjusting nicely all their relations. Let one compare Pietro Ghisleri with Saracinesca, and he will see that the strong, broad lines upon which the earlier story was built have given place to slender, well-knit, indeed, but apparently fragile supports; and by an almost necessary connection the men and women have not the freedom of movement in the later novel which they enjoyed in the former. There is still the suggestion of nobility in the best women. Laura belongs to the world in which Corona holds sway, and the men act forcefully ; but Pietro himself strikes us as an over-refined character, the attempt on Mr. Crawford’s part to mix his metal with more alloy, and yet to offer the same attractiveness to the other honest people of the Crawford world. As a curious commentary on the author’s difficulties when he abandons a consistent for a merely balanced character, the reader will observe the almost total suppression of the husband of the woman whom Pietro has wronged. Possibly all this is due to Mr. Crawford’s desire to work out his rather artificial plot, with its spring in hate, not love, in a field where he is entirely at home, and among a people whose nature reduces the artificiality to its lowest terms.

Mr. Gilbert Parker has this in common with Mr. Crawford, that he loves a story ; but if we are to take his latest novel2 as witness, he has also that love of his characters, of the scenes they enact, and of the very field of their action which seems lacking in the older novelist. There is, indeed, a fine flavor of youth about the book, with its wide sweep of adventure, and its insistence upon the elemental forces of love and physical courage. The scene shifts from Scotland to the lone northern land about Hudson’s Bay, and the characters are mainly Scottish, with one of those Indian maidens, so dear to the romancer, who embodies all the graces of nature which logically belong to a child of savagery. The contrast between the dense village in Scotland and the vast reaches of the north, with the drama acted now in the one, now in the other, is an effective piece of art, and the reader is not likely to trouble himself much over the conventionality of the incidents which set the actors in motion. The characters, too, are well conceived and clearly defined ; but, above all, the reader rejoices in that large, out-of-door spirit which impels the writer, and gives promise of even stronger, freer life. One thinks of Cooper, but remembers that Cooper was more ponderous, moved more heavily, and dwelt upon his scenes, for the most part, with a slow deliberation which quickened only when there was the necessity for prompt action. Mr. Parker is not likely to diminish his force by overvaluing the description of nature, and if with increase of practice he can secure greater freedom from artificiality in his plot, we are sure that his stories will come to the confined dweller in cities like a vacation in the woods.

It is a sign of the expansion of the novel, and its emancipation from the tyranny of fashion and prevailing schools, that side by side on our shelves to-day lie stories which depend for their attractiveness upon the adventures they relate : novels which are dramas turned into narrative, character studies which are almost reports of the latest investigation in psychology, historical studies thrown into the form of fiction, crosssections of society to illustrate sociological problems, and in fine almost all the varieties possible of the exhibition of life through parable. It is hard to say, when one regards only the best writers of the day, what is the prevailing mode, and the new writers may follow their bent resolutely, sure of sympathy in some quarter. It is, we think, quite thirty years since Mr. Henry James began to delight cultivated readers with his sketches of the human soul as seen through the more or less opaque veil of the flesh. Himself a student of older masters, he has in this period seen disciples of his own ; and his work to-day, if it varies from his earlier work, does so through the natural process by which the subtle grows more impenetrable, and the delicacy of shade is divided by still finer discrimination. We confess to liking this author best in his larger books, because with greater space there is more room for his characters, built up out of an infinity of particulars, to show themselves for what they are, and because we think Mr. James himself therein brings into play powers of composition which scarcely have scope in his shorter stories. Nevertheless, he remains today, in some respeots, the consummate artist in miniature story-telling of this generation. Here, for example, are the latest collections of his scattered work, eight stories in two separate volumes,3 — stories which have an unmistakable individuality, and intimate, moreover, an inexhaustible vein of criticism of life. Inexhaustible, we say, because the writer discloses an increasing power of penetration, not because his range of observation appears to be widening. Mr. James has made excursions into somewhat obscure quarters of life before this, especially in his longer novels, but in these later short stories he seems rather disposed to resume his studies in certain familiar fields, and to see how far he can push them. Here is The Real Thing, for instance, which is the story of the perplexity experienced by an artist who is confronted by a pair of human beings, deliciously conceived as the product of a highly conventionalized society, a man and woman of unquestionably good form, wholly dependent on society, yet driven by necessity to offer themselves as models to the artist, their recommendation being that they are the real thing, and therefore preëminently useful to him in his delineation of people of their order. The story is wrought with good-humored skill, and is a most ingenious satire on realism in fiction. We say this boldly, though ten to one the author of the tale could find us a dozen other interpretations of the parable. That is the bewildering and teasing effect of Mr. James’s recent fiction. The palpable story seems almost a screen behind which the real story is going on, and the curious spectator constantly desires to get behind the screen. Readers of The Atlantic will recall an almost insoluble story with which he diverted them some time ago, and has printed in one of these volumes, The Private Life. A more elusive tale in its actuality it would be hard to find; yet one might affirm with considerable confidence that he saw clearly what was the moral contained in it. Is it not the result of a steadfast search for the real thing that Mr. James has finally come very near to squaring the circle in fiction ?

It is a commonplace that the disciples of a master catch his manner, but not his style; yet discipleship is the best training for mastery, and it is interesting sometimes to note how master and pupil part company at some point, and follow different roads. This we fancy to have taken place in the relations of Miss Annie Eliot to Mr. James. White Birches 4 is, we believe, Miss Eliot’s first book, but her work in minor form has been familiar to readers of magazines for some time past. It is no reproach to her that she has read her James faithfully ; but this book looks to us like a resolute effort to assert her own individual power. As such it has an interest not perhaps justified by the performance alone. The story is not wholly new in its main theme. An artist summering in the country falls in with one of those heroines who have piqued the curiosity of other novelists, a girl who is of dewy freshness of nature, country born and bred, but not rustic ; certain to be transferred by the exigencies of fiction to city surroundings, in order that contrast may heighten her charms, and new environment test and confirm her integrity. The inevitable happens in this case, also. In telling her story Miss Eliot uses a good deal of skill, and shows her power chiefly in the sketches she gives of subordinate characters. Miss Matilda, in particular, is capitally studied, and suggests that in the management of the side of country life which is marked by dry humor Miss Eliot might achieve her best success. But what impresses us most in the book is the deliberation with which Miss Eliot avails herself of the stock properties of novelists for the purpose of setting forth her simple drama. There is hardly an attempt to introduce novelty, unless it be in the half-foreign circus scenes, but her interest is centred, apparently, upon her characters, and especially upon the contrasted ones of Rhodope, the country maid, and Mrs. Needham, the artificial, highly accented woman of society. She wishes to denote the shades in each character, and to do it not by the use of exaggerated scenes, but by the ordinary conventions of current life. It seems sometimes as if she had cautioned herself against being oversubtle, as if she were aware that brilliancy of tone was rather wearisome to the reader, and so had aimed at reasonableness, and at keeping the main figures in good and appropriate attitudes. The result is a careful but somewhat timid story. Its artificiality is superficial, for the writer plainly does not set a high value on her plot; she is concerned for her persons. But she has scarcely yet discovered the art of making her characters disclose themselves through act; they are still dependent mainly on dialogue. The interest for us is in the sincere attempt to model her figures in the round, to give them independent life, instead of being contented, as before, with figures in low relief.

If we were seeking for contrast, we could scarcely find a more striking.one to White Birches than Old Kaskaskia,5 already known to our readers in its serial passage through The Atlantic ; contrast in motive, in style, and in material. Miss Eliot, fastening her attention upon the people about her, is keenly interested in their behavior under circumstances very familiar to her readers. Mrs. Catherwood takes her pleasure in that which is unfamiliar so far as externals go, in vivifying it through the imagination, and in presenting it in its most picturesque and dramatic scenes. The study which the former gives to the trivial expression of social life the latter bestows upon historical monuments and records. Persons, however, can be made in both ways, though Mrs. Catherwood has this advantage, that, since her figures are dressed in old clothes, and play their part in a past period, any singularity of behavior will make less impression of inaccuracy on the reader than will a departure from good form in the case of men and women dressed in the costume of to-day, and living as the reader lives. But the charm of Mrs. Catherwood’s book does not lie in its fidelity to historic fact. One recognizes constantly the touch of a writer who is a conscientious student of her material, and feels thus a confidence in her accuracy: yet he does not read to inform himself of the actualities of a bygone period; he reads her romance as he would read a poem, for its lyrical beauty, its imaginative power, its reproduction of human passion in a form all the more impressive that it is remote from the accidents of present fashion. There have been historical romancers in abundance, and dreary have been the results of many painstaking students who have thrown their work into the form of fiction ; but Mr. Arthur Hardy in Passe Rose, and Mrs. Catherwood in her three or four books, show us the genuine thing, — history passing through the alembic of fine poetic imagination.

Is it not the love of the past which, after all, lies at the bottom of success in such work? We mean sincere affection and pride in men and women who are dust, so that the novelist who recreates in fiction their analogues is really reinforced by these emotions. Certainly this thesis might be maintained if one confined one’s self to the noticeable contrast existing between two books 6 by one writer, appearing almost together, and presumably representing her habit of mind. In one book Mrs. Harrison has told with tender charm of the life centring about the old Virginian town of Alexandria, thinly disguised by its other name of Belhaven. These sketches — they can scarcely be called tales — are fragrant with memories; they embalm an actual life, and belong on the same shelf with the New England tales in which Miss Jewett has set forth the decayed gentility of another section, with certain stories by Miss Grace King, of New Orleans, and with other stray bits of fiction which inclose as in amber persons and scenes which appeal with a melancholy tinge to one’s sympathy. There is a slight scent as of a remote perfume, say of lilacs not too close at hand, about these delightful sketches. But when one opens the other book, he perceives, to carry out the figure, a rather strong odor of patchouly. Mrs. Harrison’s charming sentiment becomes somewhat ordinary sentimentalism. The whole effect of this second collection of tales and sketches is of carelessness, almost indifference to good art; an idle playing with themes for stories. There are clever bits, as in the travel part of Golden-Rod, but they seem to have little relation to the story as a whole ; and one comes to open dissatisfaction with a writer who has real gifts, and is content with them as toys.

It is not this fault that we should find with Octave Thanet’s stories.7 Here is a positive delight in her work by a writer who brings to the task a healthy interest in the not over-refined activity of a semi-frontier civilization. One feels that Octave Thanet recognizes the rawness of much of the material she is handling, but looks farther into it, and perceives certain signs of fundamental virtues which she is eager to introduce to the knowledge of others. She is a reporter of life, it is true, rather than an artist. She is content with obvious construction for her stories, if so be she can convey to others something of the genuine interest which has been awakened in her by contact with the busy, alert folk of a Western town, and the inevitable contrasted personalities which are knocked over and hustled out of the way or good-naturedly set aside by all this energy. There is a warm current of life running through this book, which atones for much that otherwise would affect the reader as somewhat commonplace, and we cannot help thinking that if the author poured the best contents of two or three stories into one, and refined that by repeated processes of writing, she might produce work which would not only reflect the life in which she is so much interested, but have a lasting life of its own, such a life as fine art alone can give. Indeed, one need scarcely go beyond this book for the commentary we have made. Some of Mr. Frost’s drawings, with their humor, their good modeling, their admirable selection, their exclusion of the unnecessary, are capital exhibitions of artistic story-telling.

Mrs. Deland made herself known to readers by a little volume of verse and two full-grown novels before she essayed the short story. At least we think nearly all of the five stories which appear in her recent collection 8 saw the light in magazines after her novels were published. This reversal of the customary order may have no special significance, yet we think it throws a little light upon her art. Her novels show that her interest is in ethical and spiritual problems, and they read as if the problems presented themselves to her in abstract form, and that then she set about the solution through imaginary cases. This would account, possibly, for the ghostliness which hangs about her main characters, as if they had not perfectly “materialized;” but what is more interesting is the strong artistic sense which so nearly triumphs in such personages, and is wholly delightful in the creation of the minor characters in her novels. The reader must have been struck with the mellowness of those parts of her novels in which she is unincumbered by great spiritual problems, but evidently exceedingly interested in her persons. In one aspect, these episodical passages, so to speak, are foils to the over-serious contentions. The reader feels this relief, and we suspect the writer must also have felt it. At any rate, there is a spontaneity about them, a natural expression of the persons in act and speech and manner, which seems to show she had seen these people, and had not been obliged to create them for great moral purposes.

The volume before us contains something of a commentary on this view. Mr. Tommy Dove, the title story, is a bit out of that entertaining world to which Mrs. Deland has heretofore escaped when she wished to plant her feet on solid ground. It might have been a bit of byplay in a larger novel, and as such we suspect it would have had more value, since one almost needs an overwrought situation to reduce the faint touch of farce in this otherwise idyllic tale. It makes us wonder if the humorous and lighter portions of the larger books have not gained almost as much as they have given in the way of contrast. In The Face on the Wall, on the other hand, we seem to see one of the large novels in miniature. We are very glad we have not to read it in extenso. Here there is the same use of contrast, but it strikes us as a deliberate use, and for this reason not nearly so effective. Mrs. Deland only works in her pastoral ladies because without them the story would be what it is the custom to call intense, but what in this case may sharply be called unreal and unnatural. If the poor fellow whose soul is here placed on public exhibition had had a book to himself, he might have been tremendous ; here he is simply unpleasant. We cannot take up the stories in detail, but if any one wishes to read a little masterpiece, which shows Mrs. Deland at her best in construction, in pathos, in delicate humor, and in a genuine humaneness, let him read A Fourth-Class Appointment.

  1. Pietro Ghisleri. By F. MARION CRAWFORD. New York : Macmillan & Co. 1893.
  2. The Chief Factor. A Tale of the Hudson’s Bay Company. By GILBERT PARKER. New York : The Home Publishing Company. 1893.
  3. The Real Thing, and Other Tales. By HENRY JAMES. New York : Macmillan & Co. 1893. The Private Life, and Other Stories. By HENRY JAMES. New York : Harper & Brothers. 1893.
  4. White Birches. By ANNIE ELIOT. New York : Harper & Brothers. 1893.
  5. Old Kaskaskia. By MARY HARTWELL CATHERWOOD. Boston and New York: Houghton, Mifflin Co, 1893.
  6. Belhaven Tales; Crow’s Nest; Una and King David. By Mrs. BURTON HARRISON. New York: The Century Company. 1892. An Edelweiss of the Sierras; Golden-Rod, and Other Tales. By Mrs. BURTON HARRISON. New York : Harper & Brothers. 1892.
  7. Stories of a Western Town. By OCTAVE THANET. Illustrated by A. B. FROST. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons. 1893.
  8. Mr. Tommy Dove, and Other Stories. By MARGARET DELAND. Boston and New York : Houghton, Mifflin & Co. 1893.