As there is a no-man’s land between the novel and the drama in which contemporaneous writers try to find a footing, so is there also a similar vague region between the narrative of genuine adventure and the invented story. Mr. Owen Wister 1 takes his characters to play on this ground. In the vigorous preface to his group of tales, he says that in certain ones the incidents and even some of the names are left unchanged from their original reality,” and he takes pains to correct a misstatement which appeared in one of the stories on its first publication ; he corrects it in a footnote, so as not to deprive himself of Mr. Remington’s picture which was made to fit the story. In short, the life which Mr. Wister portrays is so real to him in its actual material as to confound a little his own creation, and the very vividness of his actual sight arrests the operation of the sight behind the eye.
The reader is, in consequence, a trifle perturbed. He almost wishes for footnotes. He sees General Crook plainly and accepts the portrait as drawn from life, but he is curious as to the actuality of the figures in the half-historic group disclosed to him in The Second Missouri Compromise. He begins to wonder if Specimen Jones may not be taken from life. This is not to complain of the vividness of Mr. Wister’s portraits, but to ask if he has not in his art somewhat confused models and the persons whom they were to aid the artist in picturing. Mr. Henry James, in one of the subtlest of his stories, The Real Thing, has touched most firmly this interesting truth in art, that the actual is not by auy means the real.
There used to he, and may still he in old houses in Connecticut, representations of the Charter Oak, — lithographs, perhaps,—which were made more sensible by small strips of the bark of the historic tree gummed upon the trunk in the picture. Mr. Wister is not quite so simple in his art, but this confusion of the real and the actual is nevertheless to he seen in his work. He is no doubt on the highroad to the heights of fictitious literature ; we are almost tempted to call him back and beg him to devote his powers to narrative and history. We have so many who can invent, so few who can describe ; and with our eagerness to know the true inwardness as well as outwardness of that frontier land in which Mr. Wister has traveled to such good purpose, we should listen most attentively to his report of the life there, because he has clearly the penetration and the faculty of comparison which are so requisite to a faithful narrative.
We should be sorry to leave the impression of dissatisfaction with Red Men and White because of its failure in high art. The book is so strong in its graphic lines, so dramatic in its scenes, so full of a splendid health and blown through with such a west wind, that it is a tonic to the reader of anæmic fiction. Especially do we note as significant of the writer’s largeness that, though the stories are sometimes based very directly on personal adventure, the author is always a spectator even when he is a participant. The preface, to which we have already referred, is a capital bit of historical philosophy, and strengthens our impression that Mr. Wister, if he chose to use in the less popular field of narrative, description, or history the power which he shows in these short stories, would easily be a master in a territory of his own.
The Coming of Theodora 2 will bring more pleasure to the reader than it did to the amiable Davidsons, who, after their cheerful and picturesque if somewhat shiftless life, supported so patiently the capable rule of that excellent although impeccable lady. Theodora had what we New Englanders call faculty; she had, too, generosity and kindness of heart; she had every quality, indeed, which makes woman admirable except that sympathetic insight into character which is so conspicuous among the literary gifts of her creator. Lacking this one quality, she did not see that all her sensible arrangements for the good of her brother’s family simply made them supremely uncomfortable. She did not see that she was making them live in a way which, although native and natural to her, was alien and cramping to them. No more did she see that by her wellintentioned bearing of her sister-in-law’s burdens she was giving her the unpardonable affront of making her superfluous in her own household. Hers is a familiar character that is all the more exasperating on account of its very goodness, on account of its very elusiveness to justifiable reproach. Easy to sketch in a slashing, effective fashion and to frame in witty invective, the character is difficult to draw so that the reader, while never for an instant losing sight of its provoking side, remains wholly in sympathy with it. In this better way Miss White draws it. We are made to admire, almost to love Theodora. We are taught by unobtrusive touches to appreciate the fact that she is irritating by the defect of her qualities ; that she is not at fault, but unfortunate.
So to create such a character is to show notable insight and sympathy. Miss White adds to these excellent gifts the light, unerring comedy touch, humor, and gayety of heart. What is pleasant in this day of sober fictions is that, although she is an artist, she is not sad.
One suspects, however, that she would like to be so. Signs are plenty that she has that itch for the tragic which is often so unaccountably present in writers who have the precious gift of wholesome mirthfulness. One must deprecate the pushing of Theodora — who was surely created only for kindly laughter — into the midst of misplaced if reasonable tragedy. To hurry the smiling reader under a cold douche of unexpected pathos is to make the joke too practical. Herein, probably, is a part of the reason for the verdict, likely enough to be pronounced by many, that the book, although clever, is disagreeable. Another greater part is in the author’s infraction of the æsthetic law that, in a work of the imagination. tragic results, to he acceptable, must flow from apparently as well as really adequate sources. That Theodora was obtuse will not justify to the average person the shipwreck of her life. The spectacle is not tragic : it is only painful. This seems to us the mistake of the book. That Theodora is a figure for a comedy, and not for a tragedy, ought to have been seen by so clear-sighted a person as Miss White.
With the slight and all too ingenuous plot there is no need to quarrel. Properly speaking, The Coming of Theodora is not a novel at all. What it really is, is a finely executed character sketch, in which all else is but mat to set off the portrait of a lady whose likeness, although she has sat to many an artist, we do not remember ever to have seen so happily caught.
Miss White’s mistake in Theodora is repeated in grosser form in one of the stories which Mr. F. Hopkinson Smith has collected in his volume entitled A
Gentleman Vagabond.3 In John Sanders, Laborer, the hero, a simple-minded workingman, with whom the author, with his customary success, has brought us into close sympathy, is made to sacrifice his life to save that of a worthless mongrel dog. The incident, although it is eloquent enough of the tender-heartedness of the man, is simply shocking. The reader may properly resent such trifling with his feelings, since — to recur to a figure already used — upon him the effect, however intended, is that of a practical joke. Nor can one easily bring himself to care greatly for some other of the stories. Brockway’s Hulk, for example, has too much the air of being made up of an old boat, a man, and a child, materials for a sketch elaborated into a melodrama. The sentiment of Jonathan is too sugary sweet not to he a bit cloying. Along the Bronx and Another Dog cannot be placed in a rank higher than that of pleasant trifles. Did not the volume contain stronger tales than these, even Mr. Smith’s agreeable style, which, though careless more often than not, is full of color and charm, could not save it from being somewhat disappointing. Fortunately, there are two tales in it which have no inconsiderable merit, and one which a bold critic could declare a veritable gem. The gem is A Knight of the Legion of Honor. But before pointing out its value more particularly we are minded to pay tribute of admiration to the kindly humor and shrewdness of the sketches of Mayor Tom Slocomb of Pokamoke and of Bäader, prince of couriers. Both are most satisfactory personages, delightful compounds of the scamp and the gentleman, whom it is pleasant to have Mr. Smith enable you to understand and admire. From these the reader can turn with full assurance of still keener pleasure to the sketch of one who is completely the gentleman. A fascinating essayist of our time, who touched few topics which he did not adorn, Robert Louis Stevenson, failed, like many another, when he tried to define the essential quality of a gentleman. Where he failed we will not venture ; but that Mr. Bosk, who so unconsciously reveals his own worth in telling the story of his romantic ride from Venice to Vienna with a beautiful Polish countess in trouble and alone, is every inch a gentleman may be unhesitatingly affirmed. When Mr. Smith, in the character of a listener to the man and the story that he has himself invented, exclaims, "You were the first, gentleman she had ever known,” one does not feel any impulse to dissent from the author’s enthusiastic verdict upon his own creation. Such an exclamation on the part of a less skilled writer would be a dangerous challenge to the hearer’s sense of humor. That no sense of incongruity is felt is the best proof of the success of this portrait of a gentleman.
- Red Men and White. By OWEN WISTER. Illustrated by FREDERIC REMINGTON. New York : Harper & Brothers. 1896.↩
- The Coming of Theodora. By ELIZA ORNE WHITE. Boston and New York: Houghton, Mifflin & Co. 1895.↩
- A Gentleman Vagabond and Some Others. By F. HOPKINSON SMITH. Boston and New York : Houghton, Mifflin & Co. 1895.↩