Recent American Fiction

IT has been noted as one of the signs of a healthy literary epoch in any land when its authors of the second rank — those, that is, who have just missed the great rewards, and fallen short of the widest renown — write remarkably well. Books have their luck, no doubt, — their auspicious or malignant star, — no less than people. To be undistinguished is happily not always to lack distinction, and there are certain kinds of distinction sure not to be appreciated by an enormous number of readers, in any country under the sun. The books whose vogue is greatest have usually, no doubt, great merit of some kind to justify their celebrity ; as “ the rose that all are praising ” is a genuine triumph of horticulture. But it is not always the mammoth splendors of the prize blossom which are most interesting to the botanist, or most redolent of the native soil.

These, and a few less obvious reflections, have been suggested by the perusal of three new American novels, all having technical excellence of an uncommon order, and two of them at least giving the reader food for grave reflection after the book is laid aside.

Unleavened Bread,1 by Robert Grant, is a tale of no great literary charm, but it is marked by a refreshing absence of conscious and obtrusive literary effort. The “optic nerve” is as resolutely “ starved ” in these ruthless pages as Henry James told Robert Louis Stevenson that it was in the otherwise superb story of Catriona. Stevenson replied that this was exactly what he found himself aiming at in his writing, and more and more sedulously as time went by. “ I hear people talking,” he wrote from Samoa, exactly one year before his death. “I feel them acting; and that seems to me to be fiction. My two aims may be described as : (1) War to the adjective, and (2) death to the optic nerve. Admitted that we live in an age of the optic nerve in literature, for how many ages did literature get along without it ? ”

What Stevenson did with deliberation, on the easily abused principle of art for art, the author of Unleavened Bread seems to have done involuntarily, under compulsion of a strenuous purpose ; which, nevertheless, he is too canny to avow as a purpose, and which hardly reveals itself as such to the reader until near the end of the book. This latest production of the writer, who began his career in the seventies by the rollicking satire of The Little Tin Gods on Wheels, and who has written a goodly number of more or less telling books since then, is chiefly remarkable for the masterly presentment of the central female figure ; a figure as new to fiction as it is, unhappily, true to fact. Mr. Grant’s heroine, Miss Selma White, marries a prosperous tradesman in a fast expanding Middle Western city, — chiefly to escape the drudgery of schoolkeeping. She is a very pretty girl, with a delicacy of feature and of coloring that strangely belies the essential commonness of her mind and hardness of her nature. Yet that mind is a busy and aspiring one, and she is informed by a delightful conceit of herself as a typical American maiden congenitally superior to social distinctions, though fitted to adorn any station. The duties and constraints of married life soon become quite as irksome to her as those of the provincial schoolroom. Her capacity for affection is curiously small, — an irritable and overweening vanity being the motive of most of her actions ; and she is fain to lull the unpleasant feelings excited by the unexpected discovery, even in Benham, of a presumably worldly and wicked upper circle of society into which she cannot penetrate by becoming the inspired reciter, in bourgeois parlors, of — “ Why should the spirit of mortal be proud ? ” and the fluent exponent at women’s clubs of advanced views upon subjects of which she knows next to nothing. When her baby — the only child she ever bore — has died of croup, owing to her preoccupation with a club-meeting, and when her husband has sought to console himself for his disappointments as a husband and father by a rueful return to the coarse dissipations of his bachelorhood, Selma snatches at the pretext afforded her for obtaining a divorce on the ground of unfaithfulness, and begins life anew as a journalist. She will henceforth be that “ representative woman, independent and pure,” who lives gladly by her wits rather than submit to marital degradation ; and the leaders of the emancipated sisterhood receive her with open arms. But newspaper work proves hard work too, and Selma soon escapes from its bondage by a second marriage with a refined and honorable, but over-susceptible, and surely rather weak young New York architect. This abrupt second marriage of the heroine is the weakest point in an otherwise inflexibly straight and mainly convincing story. The real Wilbur Littleton would not thus have married the young divorcé out of hand, and sprung her as a bride, almost without warning, upon the sympathetic and high-minded sister who had hitherto presided over his modest apartment, and quietly but incalculably furthered his promising professional career. Howbeit, Pauline Littleton accepts her sudden displacement with impeccable good breeding, and Selma enters upon her New York life which proves to be but a repetition upon a broader stage of her early experience in Benham. The careless magnificence of the inaccessible caste is even more obvious and offensive here than it had been in the lesser city, and Selma, while denouncing with all the acrid eloquence, of which she is now a ready mistress, the frivolity and treachery to “ the American idea ” of millionairedom generally, treasures every real and fancied affront for explicit vengeance, in that coming day of her own social ascendency which the self-righteous and soulless little schemer plainly foresees. Her second husband presently dies of pneumonia complicated by a broken heart, whereupon she shakes the dust of naughty New York from her impatient feet, and returns to Benham ; a young and handsome woman still, with the aplomb of a widow, and having the five thousand dollars of poor Wilbur Littleton’s life insurance wherewith to begin fresh operations. These culminate before many months are over in a third marriage, to the Hon. James O. Lyons, a rising politician and a reputed capitalist, with a serious and pompous mien, and a large following in the Methodist connection. How Selma furthers this man’s ends that she may gain her own; how she flatters all his meaner instincts and helps him to strangle the vague outcry of his elementary conscience, deriding his dim perception of the point of honor and the sacredness of a pledge by impious appeals from the “ religion of this world ” to the supposed sanctions of a disembodied state ; how at last she sees in the ill-gotten victory which has landed him in the United States Senate an indubitable sign that Providence has ranged itself on their side, — all this may be read and studied with profit in the grim pages of Unleavened Bread. The portrait, whose lines are bitten with so corrosive an acid, is almost worthy to be hung beside Becky Sharp ; yet not for one moment do we suspect it to be a personal sketch. In its deep vulgarity and startling verisimilitude it is still the picture of a type; a sort of combination photograph. This unfeeling, unlovely, uncultured, and self-bounded being is only too truly what she exulted to describe herself, — the representative woman of a wide social section in our commonwealth. The point and sting of the whole sordid history lies in this: that that graceless travesty of a statesman, James Lyons, is not merely “ one of our conquerors,” but the most potent of them all in the hour that now is, and that Selma is the conqueror of him.

The title of our next book, The Voice of the People,2 would seem to suggest that we are still in the region of types, tendencies, and social problems. Yet except for its underlying thoughtfulness, and for the condemnation implied rather than pronounced, in the closing chapters, of some of our prevalent political methods, — the latest work of Miss Glasgow has little in common with Unleavened Bread. For this is a true romance, a simple, and wholly probable, yet admirably wrought and deeply affecting story. It actually essays, for a wonder in any novel of the year 1900, to portray a grand passion; the tyrannous and consuming passion of a great man of low origin for a bright, alluring, but, as the event proves, quite ordinary woman in a rank of life above his own. The Voice of the People comes to us from the latitude whence we get all our best imaginative work in these days, the region along Mason and Dixon’s happily obliterated line, — that most hotly contested and grievously devastated battleground of the great civil war. Surely there must have lurked in the ashes of that burning — tot funera ! — a wonderful enrichment of soul and enlargement of vision for the generation that was to grow up there after the fight was lost and won! The best of the apologues they bring us are so broadly based upon the final certainties of life and morals, so clear of all bookish affectation and sophistication, so lightly encumbered by material flummery ! Not that the optic nerve is by any means " starved ” in Ellen Glasgow’s tale. The scenery of her drama is always vividly present to the writer’s mind, and she manages with a few strokes of a skillful brush to make it equally clear to the reader. Strictly speaking, there is too much landscape in the book ; yet it is hard to quarrel with pictures where the color is as discreetly and delicately applied as in this of the old shire town of Kingsborough in Virginia, where the action of the piece begins and ends : —

“ A board was nailed on the brick wall (of the court house), bearing in black marking the name of the white sand street which stretched like a chalk-drawn line from the grass-grown battlefields to the pale old buildings of King’s College. The street had been called in honor of a Duke of Gloucester. It was now Main Street and nothing more; though it was still wide and white and placidly impressed by the slow passage of Kingsborough feet. Beyond the court house, the breeze blew across the green, which was ablaze with buttercups. Beneath the warm wind, the yellow heads assumed the effect of a brilliant tangle, spreading over the unploughed common, running astray in the grass-lined ditch that bordered the walk, hiding beneath dusty - leaved plants in unsuspected hollows, and breaking out again under the horses’ hoofs in the sandy street. . . . On the hospitable thresholds of ‘ general ’ stores, battle-scarred veterans of the war between the states dealt in victorious reminiscences of vanquishment. They had fought well, they had fallen silently, and they had risen without bitterness.”

The period of twenty years or so covered by the story embraces the youth and early maturity of the first generation born and bred in Virginia after Lee’s surrender, and comes up with the present time. The survivals from the ante-bellum era, — testy old General Battle, the judge who “ had not spoken an uncivil word ” since the close of the civil war, and who “ from having been, in his youth, one of the hopes of his state, had become in its age one of her consolations ; ” the stately widow of a fallen Confederate warrior, Mrs. Dudley Webb, impenitent and inscrutable ; and all the foolish, fond old negroes, whose wool is white, and their elementary speech racy with memories of “ dem good old slavin’ times,” — each one of these obsolescent types is tenderly and reverentially depicted ; their personal oddities and anachronisms hit off with wistful, caressing, half-unwilling wit. But if the writer’s heart is in the past, her faith, albeit stripped of illusions and forlorn, is fixed upon the future. The long and groveling agony of the poor white trash, from which her hero springs, is portrayed both with unflinching realism and unfailing sympathy; all the harsh contrasts of the situation softened, and its more cruel aspects half disguised by the curiously pen give and subdued but all-pervading humor which plays over the surface of the narrative like the ruddy twinkle of veiled sunshine upon still waters in a smoky autumn day. The career of the protagonist, Nicholas Burr, is at once a triumph and a tragedy. The ladylove who had fired and fed his young ambition, and who had promised in the ardor of one exalted hour to wait for his victory, forsakes him in the moment of ordeal for a man of her own caste ; yet he is governor of the Old Dominion when he meets his untimely end. The lesser actors in the history all fall back before the catastrophe arrives, leaving the rugged figure of the hero outlined in lonely grandeur upon the steps of Kingsborough court house, where he dies by the shot of a fellow townsman, in the vain attempt to defend from the violence of an infuriated crowd the criminal confined within.

A faint reminiscence of the end of Beauchamp’s Career is almost the only suggestion of direct influence by any other author which occurs in The Voice of the People. The work is not quite a masterpiece, but its noble and impressive dénouement makes it one not easy to forget.

Utterly dissimilar, in tone and intention, to the two novels already mentioned, is The Touchstone,3 by Edith Wharton, of which, however, there can hardly be higher praise than to say that it fully answers the expectations excited by a collection of short stories from the same hand published less than a year ago. The rather enigmatical title of that exceptionally refined recueil, The Greater Inclination, explained itself in the course of the book as a scientific metaphor. It meant the slight but conclusive deflection by incalculable circumstance of a trembling and all but equally hung balance of principle and motive. The sketches in question were all fragmentary ; episodes or studies in a transient light, never the complete history of any one of the dramatis personœ. They were very clever, very subtle, very urbane ; quick, too, with the trained and polished wit of a woman of the world. But the author’s extreme fastidiousness, her almost morbid fear of overlaying and overworking, prevented her from finishing anything. One or two of the stories ended, and ended effectively enough, in the middle of a sentence. The characters were all taken from the milieu of clubs and ballrooms ; but within these conventional limits, the novelist found material for the most serious and searching psychological study. She is indeed no mean psychologist, and all the rare qualities of the earlier essays are seen to even heightened advantage in the new book. The Touchstone is a more sustained effort than any one of its predecessors, and it is well sustained. The analysis of the hero’s mental struggle goes deeper ; the ethical conclusion is more unhesitatingly drawn. The simple story need not be repeated here. It was plainly suggested in the first instance by the publication of the Browning Love Letters. If The Voice of the People is incredibly and almost amusingly innocent of extraneous literary influence, The Touchstone is replete with echoes, reflections, reminiscences from the lighter literature of many lands and languages. There is one distinguished contemporary writer, indeed, whose influence is too plain to be overlooked. Mrs. Wharton has sat at the feet of Henry James, and in the way of her art she has unquestionably learned much from him. But she would now do well to rise from her deferential attitude. Better things than he can inspire are, we believe, within the scope of her still widening possibilities.

The American city whose high life the author of The Touchstone has depicted without a trace of vulgarity (no common feat!) is New York; always with fond and respectful reminiscences of Philadelphia. Boston is but a byword there. Turning over our triad of novels yet once again, — the Bostonian’s Western tale, and the Southern tale, and the tale of what was once only the chief city of the Middle States but is now the metropolis of the Union, — we are freshly convinced that the Puritan vein and the transcendental vein are both worked out. Let us close the mouth of the echoing shaft, and heartily salute the young workers in less thoroughly explored and apparently richer mines. The life of the Northeastern states is too settled, circumscribed, and safe, it has been too long fat, and “set,” and prosperous, to afford the best of dramatic material. If Spain had had the will or the power to bombard the cities of the New England seaboard in the summer of 1898, we might have had some strong novels of New England life in the next generation. As it is, we must wait a little longer.

Let it be said at once that Mr. James Lane Allen, in his latest novel, The Reign of Law,4 has maintained that tone of high seriousness and idealism which marks him off from the knowing and sophisticated brothers of his craft. It is something to have still a writer who is not afraid to “ let himself go,” in Southern abandon, with “ Oh, the roses ! ” Mr. Allen frequently yields himself to this simple emotional overflow, without once stopping to consider whether it be literary “ good form,” or whether some smart penman, survivor of all illusions, will laugh at him for an innocent estray. And in the matter of close and interpretative study of nature, which, when all is said, is Mr. Allen’s chief note and distinction, his mastery in this volume is as convincing as it was in The Choir Invisible. “ When every spring, welling out of the soaked earth, trickles through banks of sod unbarred by ice.” “ The fall of the hickory nut, rattling noisily down through the scaly limbs and scattering its hulls among the stones of the brook below.” One is tempted to quote a thousand such sentences of a poet manqué. For all this, and for Mr. Allen’s firm and vivid rendering of life in Kentucky field and farmhouse, there can be nothing but praise. Direct methods, a pathos unafraid, a fine ideal strain throughout — such things are not so common in an age delighted with its own cleverness as not to make us grateful to a man who can blow Mr. Allen’s “ thrilling summons.”

And yet! From the standpoint of art, what an odd tiling is Mr. Allen’s proem, or overture, or whatever he calls it! Twenty-three pages about Hemp (his sub-title is A Tale of the Kentucky Hemp Fields), for all the world like disparate notes swept together and so got off his hands. Here are history and trade statistics, a farmer’s annual and shipping records, the decay of an industry and the decline of the American merchant marine, all jumbled together and shot through with touches of exquisite description of nature. It is a daring novelty, and one feels like urging Mr. Allen never to venture it again. To any other writer the critic would declare that it meant instant wreck. Even from our lofty natures, our prose-poets, we demand something like wholeness of structure, continuity of texture; and these we certainly feel to be imperiled in The Reign of Law at the very start.

The theology in Mr. Allen’s book (and there is an infinite deal of it) has anachronism written on its face. Darwinian before Darwin, the author shows us The Descent of Man read and working havoc in Kentucky some three years (for he realistically sets down the date) before it was actually published. This is but a hint of his violent reading backwards of later theological conditions into the decade following the civil war. At that time evolutionary theory had not got beyond the stage of being laughed at as ridiculous, even among our most bustling intellectuals. The later stage — you remember Archbishop Whately’s mot, of being read out of the court of reason because contradicted by the Bible — surely came years later in Kentucky. But we must not press this, inasmuch as Mr. Allen’s publishers have in his behalf loftily disdained the idea of pinning him down to dates ! Unluckily, he began the pinning to dates. There are other indications, however, of his wandering in a theological world not realized. He tells us of “ministers of the gospel ” who “ read in secret in their libraries ” the “ new thought of the age,”and who “ locked the books away when their church officers called unexpectedly.” This is pure mistake. What would really be done with the books would be to hold them up, with the triumphant cry, “ None of these things move me ! ” Mr. Allen is apparently unacquainted with that numerous class of the clergy who boast themselves immune to every microbe of unbelief that stalketh in darkness ; who go to German Universities and return proudly unscathed; and who, far from locking up Darwin and Huxley and Renan, carry them boldly into the pulpit for purpose of triumphant “ refutation.” Many and strange theological professors have winged their mysterious flight in fiction, but none so weirdly unnatural to us as Mr. Allen’s. Theological love-making has been essayed before, but his David’s discoursing to Gabriella is of a fearful and wonderful kind, which certainly shows that she loved him else she would have fled screaming with laughter.

Yet even this, Mr. Allen is able to carry off. Pick out absurdities as you will, the total impression remains wholesome and beautiful. We can but close as we began, with thanking Mr. Allen for having, when all deductions are made, revealed himself once more as a novelist who, for nobleness of conception and delicacy of execution, stands head and shoulders above his fellows.

  1. Unleavened Bread. By ROBERT GRANT. New York : Charles Scribner’s Sons. 1900.
  2. The Voice of the People. By ELLEN GLASGOW. New York: Doubleday, Page & Co. 1900.
  3. The Touchstone. By EDITH WHARTON. New York : Charles Scribner’s Sons. 1900.
  4. The Reign of Law. By JAMES LANE ALLEN. New York: The Macmillan Co. 1900.