The Mind and the Book


AT a certain point in The Virginian Mr. Owen Wister, after permitting himself some exercise of logic, apologizes to the reader for having asked him to use his mind. The apology implies the author’s knowledge that the novel-reader does not expect to be put to this particular task. But in reality is it not the thing which the author who puts some mind of his own into his fiction silently requires and often gets, though the reader may be unaware of it ?

Certainly in such a book as The Virginian the reader’s mind is richly replenished with the knowledge of scenes and lives well worth knowing about. Certainly the same may be said of much of the best imaginative writing in the English tongue. What makes such writings more significant than books of information is, in varying measure, the very quality which makes The Virginian what it is. Above and apart from the exercise of mind required both in writing and in truly reading such a book, its potent appeal to the sympathies, the emotions, the spirit of fellowship with whatever is really human, its art in urging this appeal, — these are the things which separate the story of Mr. Wister’s nameless hero from the mass of “ popular fiction.”

But to regard only the qualities of mind which enter into distinguished fiction — are they not the qualities which the biographer of distinction must also possess ? Both the biographer and the novelist must apprehend with entire clearness the human beings, and the scenes with which they have to deal ; and they must be masters of the art which shall breathe life into these persons and places. It may be too much to say that the good biographer could often turn his hand to novel-writing with success. It is not a groundless belief that the novelist, with some of the patience and method of a scholar, may almost always become a notable writer of biography.

Mr. Wister is eminently a case in point. The same grasp and vision which have given his stories their unusual historic and human value made his short Life of General Grant a masterpiece in its kind. Thus having shown his power to draw a man of action, what wonder that he has now promised himself to depict a philosopher, Franklin, and a humorist, Dr. Holmes ? A man of action, a philosopher, a humorist, — surely the Virginian himself has much in common with each of these essential characters. The completion of Mr. Wister’s portrait gallery is worth waiting for. Yet there remains, when all is said, an important advantage in favor of the novelist turned biographer ; he need not apologize for the frank use of his own mind or the frank demand upon the reader to employ the corresponding agency.