New Figures in Literature and Art: Ii. Richard Harding Davis

IF one may take sequence of publication as indicative of sequence of production, Mr. Davis began his career as a story-teller before he set out on his travels ; but both stories and sketches of travel thus far intimate that his dominant interest is in seeing the world and taking a coup d’æil of people rather than in penetrating the mystery of the human mind. The order of his travel appears to have been, the Eastern city, the Western prairie and outpost, the shores of the Mediterranean, and England. He has shown himself a first-rate reporter, with a swift instinct for selection of points, and something more than a knack of hitting off telling incidents. That his first reports should have been of his friends and neighbors in an Eastern city is both a testimony to his artistic sense, and something of a prophecy of the final form of his art.

In summing up his record of a scamper in the West, Mr. Davis writes : “The West is a very wonderful, large, unfinished, and out-of-doors portion of our country, and a most delightful place to visit. I would advise every one in the East to visit it, and I hope to revisit it myself. Some of those who go will not only visit it, but will make their homes there, and the course of empire will eventually Westward take its way. But when it does, it will leave one individual behind it clinging closely to the Atlantic seaboard. Little old New York is good enough for him.” This is the impulsive word of a man coming home, and fresh in the recollection of that sensation which witnesses to his strongest instinct, which is, after all, not for mere wandering, but for being at the centre of energy ; and there is more than one passage in the same book which betrays the writer’s halfunconscious comparison of life anywhere else with life in a great city which is native, if not accidentally the city of his birth.

But the two volumes of stories which introduced Mr. Davis to his readers are a more positive and a more interesting testimony to the nature of his regard of the world in which he found himself when he had served his apprenticeship. The neighborhood which is familiar to a story-teller is not that which he describes when he tells his stories; he assumes a knowledge of it; it exists as a background, and it is only when he comes back to it after a long absence, or desires to use it in connection with historic imagination, that he sets about a deliberate appraisal of its contents. The scene of the story which first brought Mr. Davis into marked notice — Gallegher — was laid, it is true, in Philadelphia, and he may be supposed to know best the city of his birth ; but it is as true of New York as of Philadelphia that when Mr. Davis began to write, the novelty of mere externals could scarcely be reckoned as an element in his art, and he was free to occupy himself with modes of life, and not with scenery.

It is noticeable that Mr. Davis does not trouble himself to use the two cities, which stand to him for the East, as opportunities for the contrast of life. The adventure of Gallegher scarcely takes on any hue from locality; with change of names it might as well have been a New York adventure, and the stories which fill the two volumes. Gallegher and Other Stories, and Van Bibber and Others, though identified almost wholly with New York, belong there not so much by virtue of their close portraiture of the distinctive life of New York as because what depth of soil they spring from is New York soil. All this is to say that it is chiefly in his capacity as a traveler in his own city that Mr. Davis makes himself known in his early stories, and the kind of interest which he discloses in them intimates the kind of interest he takes in life.

Perhaps an experimental acquaintance with journalism accounts for the happy choice of Gallegher as a subject, but the stories generally in these two volumes hint at a sympathy with spectacular life, the existence which is on exhibition at clubs, in polite society, at races, among adventurers, at the theatre, at the police station, in the newspaper office, at Delmonico’s or Sherry’s; and the figures who make the most impression on his pages are either those who are lookerson at the show, or those who contribute to the entertainment something which has a spice of deviltry about it. It is a young man’s world into which we are invited, but it is an open world. The healthy ebullience of youth is in the stories, and also that delicious gravity of youth which is a world away from the vulgar element of knowingness, that air of the man of the world whose capacity for enjoyment is almost past the power of spice to revive. Mr. Davis recurs with a special fondness to an invention bearing the name Van Bibber, a most delightful creature, rich, addicted to club life, a cavalier in sentiment, with a happy-go-lucky mind that astounds him occasionally by its apparent astuteness, and a coolness of courage which the modern stage has accustomed us to associate with otherwise fatuous young club men. This innocent but perfectly well-informed youngster, this man who moves with calm assurance amongst the fragile specimens of humankind who constitute his ordinary companions, and never loses his self-possession when casually encountering burglars or reprobate men of the world, is the nearest to a type that can be found in Mr. Davis’s pages. It is rather a variation than a distinct species. The modern drama has put a good many Van Bibbers on the stage, though Mr. Davis’s gentleman has an ingenuity in his ingenuousness which is amusing and novel. Now and then an element is introduced which disturbs a little the consistency of the character, but on the whole Mr. Davis has brought away from his excursions into New York society a figure which unconsciously reflects a good deal of credit on his creator.

Alongside of Van Bibber, in these early stories, may be placed the paragon of the other extreme in the social scale, the Hefty Burke, for example, who is equally intrepid, and, according to his lights, equally ingenuous. The gusto with which Mr. Davis enters into the adventures of the men whose club is the saloon gives an air of lifelikeness to the scenes, even when one is inclined to think that the principle of selection has been carried so far as to exclude tolerably natural accompaniments of the life of the tough. But the fun which rules in How Hefty Burke Got Even leaves one very indulgent toward a writer who can make high life below stairs so entertaining and so clean. Indeed, the restraint which is so marked an element in a writer possessed of such high spirits is one of the surest signs of true art, and a prophecy of growth.

One brings away from these two volumes of stories which stand for Mr. Davis’s report of his incursions into the life about him an impression of spirited youth, ready for a lark, but really most interested in the behavior of the men and women who represent “ good society;” the young men and the young women, that is, for there are very few persons in these stories over thirty, and the old gentlemen, so called, appear to be about fifty. The saving quality is to be found in the kind of interest taken, for it is always something more than mere superficiality which arrests the writer’s attention. He explores motives now and then, and shows a desire to get, if he can, at the bottom of some perplexed human heart, but for the most part his stories are anecdotes, bright, often very amusing, and always indicative of an honest curiosity. The reader is likely to care least for those stories which have an air of subtlety about them. It is not subtlety, but frankness, which underlies the best of this writer’s work.

We have said that these earlier stories are not so much inventions as reports of a young man’s journey into the world about him, and they hint at a kind of faculty which is sometimes found in a first-rate journalistic reporter. When he takes up reporting in earnest, Mr. Davis shows that he has this faculty in a high degree, but the work done displays a rapid increase in artistic power, and frequent suggestion that the storytelling gift is not an idle plaything, but likely to reassert itself finally as the dominant impulse. Perhaps this increase is due to the change of material. The first book of travel, The West from a Car Window, is professedly nothing but a series of newspaper articles thrown off after a hasty run in Texas and Colorado, visits to mining-camps, to an Indian reservation, and at army posts. The sketches are drawn with a free hand; there is a slap-dash manner about them which gives them an ephemeral character, and occasionally the reader is disposed to resent a certain cocksureness in the author ; but the most interesting notes are the personal ones, the vivid characterizations of typical lives, and now and then a report of specific adventures. Moreover, there is a wise forbearance in the matter of hearsay ; the honesty of the reporter is seen in his determination to confine himself to the results of first-hand information. The dash and freedom of frontier life interest, but do not altogether fascinate him ; courage, endurance, the fortitude of the soldier, the patient wisdom of an army officer, these arrest his attention ; and though he conies back, as we have shown, to Eastern life with a sigh of relief, he impresses the reader as having excuted a commission with fidelity and with considerable skill.

It is, however, in his second book of travel that Mr. Davis is seen at his best on this side. There could scarcely be a greater contrast in material than that which lies between the Western frontier of the United States and the shores of the Mediterranean. In traveling over the great reaches of the West, Mr. Davis sought for a few characteristic scenes, and sketched them with directness, with some vividness even, but the selective art was shown chiefly in the simple choice of subject. In visiting Gibraltar, Tangier, Cairo, Athens, and Constantinople, he had a more difficult task of selection ; he had to choose out of a prodigal range of new and striking scenes those which were best worth painting, and this calls for something more than the reporter’s knack. What is observable in this book is the sense of color and form in the picturesque, the shrewd comment on contemporaneous affairs, and the quick perception of the artistic values in the several scenes which present themselves to the traveler. The advance over the art which depicted Western life is considerable, and it is chiefly seen in the compactness and solidity of the entire impression produced. A surer touch is everywhere evident. As in the earlier book, so here, the interest in persons is never very absent; yet it seems as if the scene, the setting, had a stronger power over the writer, and as if he were not quite ready to speak in confident tones of other nationalities than his own. Be this as it may, the book is clearly more given over to the record of impressions on the eye than to anything else, and the graphic force of Mr. Davis’s mind is conspicuous.

If the reader readily pardons the absence of historic allusion in a narrative of travel among historic places, remembering how often he has been bored by travelers who are oppressed with their responsibility in such case, he is likely, all the same, to reflect that a writer almost inevitably discloses the furnishing of his mind when he falls to talking about historic cities, and he can scarcely escape the conclusion that Mr. Davis is very distinctly a contemporary, an observer rather than a student, a recorder and artist rather than a historian or a philosopher. He will feel this even more keenly upon looking to see what this writer has to say on so full a topic as Our English Cousins. Every man after his kind. There was a young American, of about Mr. Davis’s age, who went to England two generations ago and took a survey of the people and the island. He too was a college-bred man, and he visited the universities of English make, and took some account of Englishmen as he found them. We do not wish to chide Mr. Davis for not being Mr. Emerson, but we do not wish to forget that one may be a young man, and still direct his attention, when he is traveling in a historic country, to other aspects of learning and politics than the social.

It is perhaps more to the point that in leaving the Mediterranean and taking up with England Mr. Davis returns more to the point of view where he took his first stand. That is to say, he assumes his background as in his New York stories, and engages directly in sketching the people whom he meets. It is the story-teller’s mind that is at work, even though the form is not that of fiction. Here too the people who interest him are mainly the same sort that occupy his attention in his earlier stories, but of the English, and not the New York variety. Again the upper and the lower end of society entertain him, and persons, not problems, present themselves to him.

We said at the outset that Mr. Davis’s writings so far intimate his dominant interest to be in seeing the world and taking a coup d’æil of people, and we may reckon his travels as only an extension of the curiosity which first vented itself on New York. His latest collection, The Exiles and Other Stories, gives an agreeable indication that the more exclusively dramatic faculty, certainly the story-telling faculty, is likely to assert itself more emphatically. These stories show how well he can use his experience of travel as a background from which to project his modeling of human figures in interesting relations. The title story is especially suggestive. Here is a character, fast bound apparently in the swathes of convention, set free by being cast unexpectedly upon a society which has tacitly agreed to ignore conventions. Mr. Holcombe preserves his integrity in the midst of the loose fragments of Tangier life, but is impelled to strip himself of his clothes, as it were, and meet his antagonist as man to man. Despite a little forcing of the situation, the story is capitally conceived and executed. A similar motive is discoverable in the less successful, indeed rather artificial tale of His Bad Angel; but both stories show that Mr. Davis is not likely to be content with the merely dexterous arrangement of characters and scenes brightly taken from a limited and somewhat superficial survey of the nearest society. Yet the most entertaining, and we are inclined to think the most effective piece of work in the book is The Right of Way, which has all the air of being but a slightly heightened narrative of actual experience. The aplomb of this tale, the humor of it, the nice reserves as well as the hearty abandon, make it almost seem as if Mr. Davis could never expect to show what he might do unless the European nations would be so obliging as to go to war that he might take the field as special correspondent.

It would be a pity, however, if his capacity for narrating adventure had such exceptional opportunities for expression as to arrest him midway in his development as a novelist. It is too soon to predict what he may do in this direction. His construction in The Exiles and in The Princess Aline rests on too slender a basis to make one wholly confident that he has at present the power to hold long a sustained motive in story-telling. At any rate, his earliest, splendid achievement, Gallegher, owed its charm to the swiftness with which a first-rate scheme was carried to a dramatic culmination, and his latest printed tale, The Princess Aline, is an amusing involution of a whim, the dénouement of which has been anticipated by the reader, who yet follows the turns with enjoyment for the humor of the successive situations. What confidence we have arises from the fact that a reading of Mr. Davis’s books in their chronological sequence leaves us with the impression that a wider survey of the world has given a wider horizon to his mind; that his facility in transferring impressions has been confirmed ; and that, not content with reporting the modes of men’s minds, he has taken to exploring the recesses of human nature. Out of such a study comes a greater sense of the complexity of life, and out of this sense is born that conception of the dramatic meaning of life which underlies the successful construction of wholes in fiction.