Cleverness

BOOKS NEW AND OLD.

I.

IT is impossible to give any sort of attention to the passing show of fiction without being struck and struck again with the extreme cleverness of the performance. This suggests the fact that the quality of popular literature is bound to reflect the quality in life which is most desired by the people. Never has the race more sharply enjoyed its sportsmanship. Even the stout Anglo-Saxon, though he takes satisfaction in the existence of an ethical standard, finds his recreation in spectacles of adroitness. The sleight-of-hand and aplomb of the wheat operator makes the American breathe hard, and the Briton smiles outright over the triumphant ruses of the diplomat. Naturally, therefore, the public is not going to put up with any kind of dullness or clumsiness in art, and, by the only step that remains to be taken, is ready to put up with almost any kind of cleverness. What it really enjoys is a certain brilliancy, sometimes of a smooth workmanship which it does not perceive to be simply imitative, and sometimes of a dashing irregularity which it takes for a sign of genius: not to say that this public has any concern with empirical exercises of the pen. The issue of style, the cry of art for art’s sake, has never been generally listened to in England or America. We are too practical and straightforward for that. We do not require quite everything to be written in dialect, but we have a liking for English which is not ashamed to own kinship with the vernacular. The cleverness of the stylist or of the coterie has little attraction and no danger for us, therefore. According to our several degrees, we nod over our Paters or wonder over our Maeterlincks, and pass on to matters which interest us.

The public can, to be sure, feel no perfectly justifiable pride in the alternative choice, whether it happens to fall upon imitative cleverness or “freak ” cleverness. Why should the affectations of a Hewlett be creditable simply because of their archaic flavor ? And why should the hysterical confidences of a morbid precocity have recently gained our serious attention simply because they were cleverly “ made up ” ? Is this to be our conception of originality, that a man shall say things queerly, or a woman say queer things ? Surely if the choosing of bizarre phrases or the employment of such literary motifs as the toothbrush are to be treated as manifestations of genius, the critic cannot do better than betake himself once more to the amiable consideration of Shakespeare and the musical glasses.

We have in America a special susceptibility to any unusual sort of cleverness, a fondness for surprise, based, it may be, upon a sense (which underlies our agreeable theory of his capability) of the essential commonplaceness of the average man. We like to think of Lincoln as a rail-splitter whom Fate, in a spirit of bravado, deputed to illustrate the futility of the old monarchic idea. We do not, however, hold the theory that every rail-splitter possesses the genius which clearly belonged to Lincoln ; and we compromise by dwelling upon the infinite cleverness of the man, — a quality more comprehensible because capable of development by outward circumstance, but a quality quite apart from his genius. This is not good for us. We need especially to cultivate the habit of contemplating the supreme expression of personality in life and art which is the product of genuine inspiration. If that product is not to be achieved even by means of “an infinite capacity for taking pains, ” it is obviously unattainable by any effort of irresponsible cleverness. Since we cannot satisfy ourselves with the idea of literature at its best as a commodity prepared by conscientious labor, we ought not, either, to let ourselves look upon it as a kind of sublimated Yankee notion.

II.

Imitative cleverness on both sides of the water continues to find a favorite model in the work of Louis Stevenson. One of Mr. Davis’s recent stories 1 is worthy of a place in The New Arabian Nights, and Mr. Morrison’s spirited tale2 of the old London waterside is a landsman’s Treasure Island. Nothing can be said against this sort of book so long as it does not pretend to the rank of original creative work. Indeed, the time is hardly come as yet for the final placing of Stevenson’s own fiction in that aspect. Excessive cleverness was his foe; so that if Weir of Hermiston were not an indubitable though fragmentary monument of higher powers we might not be sure that he was really more than a “restaurateur,” as the Chelsea prophet in an atrabiliar mood called Sir Walter. Stevenson was at least clever in a reasonable way, so that we cannot help looking with patience upon current imitations of his wholesome method.

Our present responsiveness to an irregular and decadent cleverness is another matter. Doubtless this eager hearkening to the strange voice is due partly to our anxiety to miss nothing original; but there is a good deal of idle curiosity about it, too. The swaggering journal of the ignorant girl whose name filled the national mouth not long since was pitiful enough; but the public upon whose gaping attention the young egotist rightly reckoned became a full sharer in the pitifulness of the situation. In that case allowances were possible that do not appear to be called for by later books which express a similar condition of morbid sensibility. More than one of them have appeared in well-known magazines, and are the work of experienced writers. They are nevertheless paltry in theme and hysterical in treatment, records of the emotional experience of “intense” persons whose lamentableness even is not impressive because their characters are insignificant. Let us have our delineations of the average person, by all means, our Laphams and our Kentons; in their society we shall at least be in no danger of confounding character — the real stuff of personality — with temperament, which is a minor though showy ingredient thereof.

III.

Unfortunately our clever writing loves to deal with temperament, especially with the “artistic temperament,” whatever that is. Its possessor appears to be a figure particularly to the mind of the feminine novelist. She finds in it, perhaps, a grateful means of accounting for the uncomfortable behavior of the Orsino type of man, with his giddy and infirm fancies, and his complacent self-absorption. What sort of morality can one expect of a person who threatens to be inspired at any moment ? The rougher sex does not share George Eliot’s tenderness for Ladislaw, or Mrs. Ward’s consideration for Manisty. It chooses to fancy the masculine character an integer, at the cost, if need be, of cleverness. It prefers an Orlando, a John Ridd, or (to cite the latest example) a Captain Macklin, to the shuffling and emotional creatures in masculine garb in which women seem to find some unaccountable fascination. Seriously, is irresponsibility, masculine or feminine, so absorbing a theme as to deserve its present prominence in fiction? Even Mr. Barrie’s Tommy, a sad enough spectacle in all conscience, was not half so dreary as these weakkneed and limber-souled little gentlemen whom we are now required to hear about. Among considerable novels recently produced by women I think of seven or eight in which the central male person boasts the artistic temperament. In a few cases the problem of temperament is complicated by some fatal determination of heredity. In The Winding Road 3 the hero, as usual, sacrifices his womankind, but less in his inalienable right as a possessor of the artistic temperament than as an inevitable result of the Wanderlust which burns in his gypsy blood. In Wistons 4 the situation is reduced to its barest elements, for the hero is not only irresponsible but futile; a will-o’-the-wisp, mere temperament, without enough character about him to suggest even dimly a personality. The human sacrifices upon the altar of his temperament appear more than ordinarily unprofitable. Other effective properties beside heredity are elsewhere introduced, as in the case of the hero who turns out to be the owner of a creditable cancer, which is employed at the eleventh hour to draw off the venom of one’s contempt for his character.

But if the public is content with this sort of hero, it must be content also with such methods as he might himself (if he ever did anything) be capable of employing. Nothing is to be managed quite naturally or straightforwardly. Everything must be “original,” that is, out of the ordinary, unexpected, strained if necessary, but somehow different. Hence arises the vogue of the writer whose manner is full of petty tricks and inventions. Here is the opportunity for masters of cheap aphorism like H. S. Merriman, and for cool and witty chroniclers of smart life like John Oliver Hobbes. The popularity of such work may remind us afresh that the greater public is in matters of taste perennially an undergraduate. His latest book 5 would suggest that Mr. Merriman has pretty much exhausted his aphoristic exchequer without having acquired the deep sense of life in character which we should be more than willing to accept in exchange. In Love and the Soul Hunters 6 Mrs. Craigie gives another of her brilliantly cynical pictures of rather vulgar life above the salt. The princely hero is yet another example of the terrible temperament; though it is pleasant to admit that when in the end his inexplicable charm is rewarded by the hand of a girl greatly beneath him, and much too good for him, he is beginning to show signs of character.

IV.

Admirers of this popular conception of the artist may perhaps be disappointed in two recent heroes who have been treated in a different spirit. Oliver Horn 7 and Paul Kelver 8 are both sturdy and tolerably steady young men, though they do not look altogether promising upon first acquaintance. They do escape the mud-bath, and in the end each of them is permitted to achieve a success in his own sort of art without ceasing to be a respectable citizen or a reliable lover. Mr. Smith is of course a more experienced writer of serious fiction, and nature has given him a more regular cleverness. His story is therefore told more simply, with an action perfectly direct and unencumbered by irrelevances. The real theme is once again the familiar portraiture of the Southern gentleman of the old school. The young Oliver, in spite of the fact that one suspects the existence of an autobiographical touch here and there, is evidently far less in the mind of the author than Richard Horn. The setting of the type is extraordinary; for if the old man is in prejudice and breeding an aristocrat, he is also a good deal else: a man of practical ability and versatile accomplishments. Imagine a Colonel Carter endowed with ripe culture, by profession an inventor of electrical appliances, by training an expert musician, swordsman, and what not — and one will have a notion of Mr. Smith’s new and confessedly paradoxical embodiment of a favorite type.

Mr. Jerome has labored under the disadvantage of an unfamiliar medium and an irregular method. Many scenes and passages in Paul Kelver are marked by the sort of extraneous cleverness which used to baffle one in Dickens. There is a machinery of ghostly and sentimental reminiscence which hails too patently from Gadshill, and a frequency of farcical episodes which serve to dim the effect of the main narrative, as they too often did in the later work of the great Boz. But the narrative itself, stripped of its embellishments and superfluities, possesses real power. Paul is neither prig nor rascal, and Norah is neither fine lady nor fool. Altogether one is grateful, if a little surprised, that Mr. Jerome has done more than merely resist the temptation to be whimsical. It is much for the writer of long-standing reputation for cleverness to lift himself even momentarily above it.

v.

A contrary tendency is, it seems, to be observed in the recent work of Mr. Barrie. The whimsicality which in A Window in Thrums and Margaret Ogilvy kept to its rightful place as a palliative accessory of deep feeling is coming more and more to insist upon being heard for its own sake. The writer has the advantage of a taking personality and a confidentially sympathetic method. But though he might probably increase his audience by it, we must hope that he will not allow his growing taste for whimsical paradox to get quite the upper hand. The Little White Bird9 is much less fundamentally shocking than Sentimental Tommy was; but in manner it is even more coquettish and inconsequent, full of cleverness, and in consequence not infrequently tiresome. I do not think Mr. Barrie, except in his Jess and Margaret, has given us any distinct personalities. His studies are, in fact, in human nature rather than human character. He is a congener of Sterne without Sterne’s instinct for concrete characterization. Walter Shandy and Uncle Toby find no counterpart in reality among the amusing Tommies and pathetic Grizels of Mr. Barrie.

It is a curious fact that the three modern English novelists from whom most is now looked for should be ingenious commentators rather than creators, Mr. Meredith and Mr. James, as well as Mr. Barrie, so delight in talking about their persons and events as to impede the action and confuse the reader’s conception of the characters. As pure fiction the status of such work is dubious, but we may well afford to have it so — with the compensations. These ingenious, satirical, sympathetic, discursive essays, with illustrations, constitute an invaluable commentary upon contemporary life. Only, there is the danger, evident in each of these instances, of too great exercise of ingenuity, of a growing appetite for subtlety and paradox, which are the wine and caviare of the literary feast, and not at all good to live on. For there follows upon the gratification of this taste a tendency to have recourse to superficial clevernesses of style which should be left to those who have nothing better to offer. Surely, without enslaving ourselves to classical or alien models, we cannot help feeling that our strife should now be, not toward an art ornate and irregular, an art overborne, and even warped, by cleverness, but toward an art pure and round and balanced, free from arbitrary mannerism and meretricious embellishment. By extraneous expedients, we now know, the effects of veritable genius are likely to be obscured rather than enhanced. Hardly elsewhere than in Homer do we see cleverness held firmly in its proper place as a confidential servant of Genius. Shakespeare made a boon companion of it, and Milton, not always without awkwardness, waited upon himself. Lowell was altogether too clever for that best kind of success which Hawthorne, with his utter lack of cleverness, did not fail to attain. Byron’s work now suffers from the difficulty of estimating it apart from its cleverness ; while the gold in the poetry of Wordsworth, who never had a clever moment, is easily freed from the dross.

H. W. Boynton.

  1. In the Fog. By RICHARD HARDING DAVIS. New York : R. H. Russell. 1902.
  2. The Hole in the Wall. By ARTHUR MORRISON. New York: McClure, Phillips & Co. 1902.
  3. The Winding Road. By ELIZABETH GODFREY. New York: Henry Holt & Co. 1902.
  4. Wistons. By MILES AMBER. New York Charles Scribner’s Sons. 1902.
  5. The Vultures. By HENRY SETON MERRIMAN. New York and London : Harper & Bros. 1902.
  6. Love and the Soul Hunters. By JOHN OLIVER HOBBES. New York: The Funk and Wagnalls Co. 1902.
  7. Oliver Horn. By F. HOPKINSON SMITH. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons. 1902.
  8. Paul Kelver. By JEROME K. JEROME. New York: Dodd, Mead & Co. 1902.
  9. The Little White Bird. By J. M. BARRIE. New York : Charles Scribner’s Sons. 1902.