The New Literature


IF there is any virtue in the Toastmaster’s performance of the duties of his office, it lies chiefly in the promptness with which he introduces to the waiting audience the men and women who have something interesting to say. This annual permission to wish the Atlantic’s readers a Happy New Year, and to welcome them into an agreeable company, ought not to be turned by the Toastmaster into an opportunity for preliminary sermonizing of his own. And yet to that very treachery he now finds himself inclined.

It is all the fault of a stimulating book. Mr. Henry M. Alden, the veteran editor of Harper’s Magazine, has recently printed a volume entitled Magazine Writing and the New Literature. Unwearied by forty years of editorial labor, in which he has won the affectionate regard of two generations of writing men and women, Mr. Alden has now expressed with beaming enthusiasm his views concerning the literature of our own period. He discovers, as his title indicates, that it is a New Literature. It began, he tells us, a little later than the middle of the nineteenth century, with the emergence, in the natural course of evolution, of a distinctively modern psychical era. In our contemporaries there is a new type of imaginative faculty and sensibility. The result is a “ new realism.” The break with the traditions of the Victorian era is complete, — save for two writers, Hardy and Meredith, who, although flourishing in the Victorian age, are properly to be regarded as prophets of our own time.

Human nature, in short, is swiftly changing. A revolution in thought and feeling, a new sensibility, have demanded a radical readjustment of all the arts. Metaphysic is doomed. Those writers from whom the immediately preceding generation derived its most potent inspirations — Coleridge, Ruskin, Carlyle, Macaulay, De Quincey, Emerson — “are to us,” says Mr. Alden, “for the most part unconvincing. We respond to a new kind of interpretation in Pater, Symonds, Maeterlinck, William James.”

Our new imaginative literature, Mr. Alden continues, is to be studied most clearly in our fiction. Here is the true modernity of the modern. Psychical charm has displaced physical beauty; faultfulness seems more real and interesting than goodness; we have become “ unprecedented fathers and mothers, brothers, sisters, and friends, as well as husbands and wives.” Or, in another sentence which deserves quotation, “ Our present culture means above all things submission without reserve to the mastery of life — of life as it is, and not as we loosely think it ought to be, or as we would in the dry air of reason have arbitrarily devised and fashioned it.” The novelist must therefore beware of study, since it contracts the spirit; of diagram and decalogue, lest they prove too logical for the demands of life. Precedent and convention throw no light, apparently, upon the conduct and the motives of these unprecedented magazine wives!

If we ask for examples of this new imaginative literature which has displaced the old, and which expresses the transcendently interesting novelties and surprises of the new humanity, Mr. Alden has his answer ready. In fact, the answer, in the shape of certain gifted authors upon the Harpers’ list, may be said to have been standing in the wings, all this time, waiting to be called before the curtain. The Toastmaster confesses that their appearance brings a certain relief. It is startling to be assured by so competent an observer as Mr. Alden that “within the memory of men who have reached the age of fifty the human spirit has found its true centre of active development and of interpretation — its real modernity.” But one is less ashamed of his Rip Van Winkle ignorance of contemporary progress when he learns the names of the new prophets. Here they are, announced without a flicker of irony upon the kindly face of their endorser: “We think that the extensive appreciation of new novelists like Mrs. Humphry Ward and Maurice Hewlett is a very satisfactory test of the intellectuality of our period.”

One breathes more easily. The dreaded customs officials — the spiritual inspectors of the new epoch — are going to open only our hand luggage after all! Here are two novelists to whom we are indebted for many a pleasant hour; one of them a very conscientious observer, and the other a very clever craftsman; both of whom would have been fortunate, in the generation of Thackeray and Dickens and George Eliot, to have been reckoned vaguely as “among those present.” Their immense advantage is, according to Mr. Alden, that they are alive to-day; gifted with the new psychical sense of this new world. He declares specifically, and with an urbanity which is beyond praise, “ Mrs. Ward is probably not a greater genius than Fielding;” the difference being that there are meanings of life which were hidden from the earlier and disclosed to the later novelist. It is these new significances with which Mr. Conrad, Mr. Hichens, Mrs. Deland in her later stories, and Mr. Henry James in his post-Victorian manner, concern themselves. It is such men and women, Mr. Alden assures us, who are now interpreting our real world and our new humanity, expressing the psychical phenomena of the evanescent moment, communicating to us the “supreme excitement, play, humor, and enchantment.”

Such, in substance, is the doctrine of Mr. Alden’s book. He has spent a lifetime in watching the currents of contemporary thought and the dominant modes of expression. His frankness is charming. There is something springlike in this recurrent discovery that all things have become new and that they must be described in a new dialect. Emerson was sure of it in the forties, and Victor Hugo in the thirties, and Coleridge and Wordsworth as they walked the Quantock Hills in 1797, and Herder as he talked to the young Goethe in Strassburg in 1770, and Diderot as he planned the great French Encyclopaedia in the “illuminated” seventeen-fifties. That the spring has come a great many times already does not lessen one’s pleasure in the harbingers of one spring more. Readers of Mr. Alden’s earlier books do not need to be reminded of his range of philosophic interest, and his flexible curiosity of mind. He is at once a Greek and a Yankee, — this pupil of Mark Hopkins who has grown gray and wise in his hospitable little corner of the great publishing house on Franklin Square.

Gray and wise and delightful, — and yet bound in this latest book, the Toastmaster fears, to give some degree of aid and comfort to the Enemy. For the New Literature has apologists enough already, partisans who are quick to discern every stream of tendency that makes for acceptability; protagonists whose pockets are touched by any dissent from the worship of the idols of the market-place. No one must identify Mr. Alden with such combatants as these. He takes pains to say distinctly, “We confess frankly that in literature the book and not the magazine is the supreme thing.” But the difference lies, he thinks, in theme and scope rather than in quality; so that, as a general rule, it is periodical literature, and particularly its imaginative prose, which is truly representative of the intellectual characteristics of our time. It is in magazine-writing that our break with the past is most complete.

Precisely, one may rejoin; and it is for this reason that the New Literature conveys such an impression of fragmentariness, of evanescence. This is one of the most startling of its defects. The stream of continuity, so rich in manifold associations of racial and national experience, has been deflected, wasted. A hybrid cosmopolitanism has entertained us with novel refinements of sensation. Mr. Henry James, an artist whose amazing talent has made him the natural choice of Mr. Alden as one of the embodiments of the new spirit, is in nothing more representative of his colleagues than in his indifference to the culture of the past. Like Balzac in an earlier generation, and Tolstoi in our own, he is without the historic sense. This lack of background has been pointed out by Mr. Brownell as the conspicuous defect of Mr. James’s contribution to literature. “It is so altogether of the present time, of the moment, that it seems almost an analogue of the current instantaneous photography. Behind it one feels the writer interested, not in Molière, but in Daudet; not in Fielding, but in Trollope; not in Dante, but in Théophile Gautier. He writes about Le Capitaine Fracassc, not about Don Quixote ; about the ‘ Comédie Humaine,’ not about the world of Shakespeare. . . . A writer interested in the Antigone and imbued with the spirit of its succession, would naturally and instinctively be less absorbed in What Maisie Knew.”1

But Mr. James is by no means the only striking example of this sacrifice of ancestral estates, this indifference to an accuimdated intellectual heritage, this prodigal determination to throw one’s self gayly upon the resources of the new territory. It would be difficult for the Toastmaster to express too strongly the obligation of our own world of letters to Mr. Howells, — to his sure sense of form, his delicacy of taste, his quick interest in the contemporary literature of Italy and Spain, of France and Germany and Russia. His kindliness of spirit has made him invent and inhabit an “ Altruria.” His sense of social justice has often put his writing colleagues to shame. Yet, if it were Santa Claus time instead of New Year’s, and one could add one more quality to that rare endowment, would it not be this: a more intimate sense of the enduring value of, not merely Sophocles and Virgil, but the great spirits of our own race, of Wordsworth, Burke, Milton, of the poets, philosophers, and historians who have wrought themselves into the very fabric of the English mind ?

Many of those Victorian authors whom Mr. Alden now finds unconvincing have at least this power of making us feel our indissoluble kinship with the past. When we read Carlyle on Samuel Johnson or Voltaire or Frederick, we recognize that all this is somehow our concern: the story is about us. But the historians, in our day, are so often failing to make history vital. They write monographs, and edit documents, and collaborate like faithful spindles in a cotton mill; but, with a few notable exceptions, they not only distrust the penetrative imagination, but lack it; not only decry good writing, but are incapable of it. The result is that they are solemnly and officially putting the seventh seal upon a volume which it is their privilege to open. Few of them succeed in making the past seem real. But to the most talented fiction writers of the day the past is practically non-existent. Science has woven her web around them all; to them it is the present hour only which is fair, — the present, or, at most, the future. Like children playing with a new toy, they grow oblivious of their elders. The New Literature, in its preoccupation with the marvelous physical and psychological revelations of the twentieth century, sees the thirteenth and sixteenth centuries as pictures only, not as an integral portion of its own slowly developed life.

One result of this intellectual isolation is the temporary bankruptcy of literary criticism. Why refer an artistic product to standards of criticism which the new psychology pronounces obsolete ? In fact, the newest philosophy very cleverly eliminates this whole question of standards. If a thing works, — it works. The publisher with a leaning to pragmatism decides that if a book sells, it sells. Why trouble one’s self about what Aristotle or Boileau or Brunetière would have said of it ? These fault-finding gentlemen are dead, and their rules have perished with them. An Atlantic essayist, not long ago, deplored the lack of Honest Literary Criticism.2 But it is hard to see that the progress of the New Literature allows for any criticism at all. Its imaginative prose either turns a new flash-light upon our sensations, or it does not. If it does not, why abuse the faulty mechanism ? And if it does, why stop to analyze a successful mechanism ? Does not the American public want “results”?

In vain, for the time being, do admirers of French criticism, like Mr. Thompson, deplore the lack of intellectual candor in American criticism, its “perfunctory and insincere” laudations; the universal habit of our publishers of “sending out as ‘literary’ notes thinly disguised advertisements and irrelevant personalities.” In a few newspaper offices, a book is tolerably sure to receive honest even if hasty and superficial criticism, but we have not yet developed a general magazine-reading public to which severe and competent literary criticism appeals. Magazine writing about current books is for the most part bland, complaisant, pulpy. And yet Mr. Alden assures us that the magazines contain “just what cultivated readers want.” The terror of becoming Doctrinaires has infected our generation. The “pole-star of the ancients” has dipped below the horizon; the literary chart is held to be out of fashion; and it is suspected that the decalogue no longer applies to all the facts. The writers of the New Literature are distrustful of the schools, “Study contracts the spirit.” The pedagogue no longer gets a chance at the gifted young rascal who needs, first and foremost, a premonitory whipping; the youthful genius simply stays away from school and carries his unwhipped talents into the market-place. Yet, to be perilously frank for a moment, would not a more severe discipline have been helpful even to the maturer authors whose contemporary work delights us ? Who can doubt that the facile and ductile style of Henry van Dyke — so rich in human sympathy, so eloquent, often so noble—would, had it been held remorselessly to more austere standards by a critical public, have gained in firmness of texture in dignity and reserve?

It is to be expected that the New Literature, breaking thus boldly with the past and with recognized canons of criticism, will exhibit defects of taste. But taste is not one of the cardinal virtues. The Elizabethans and the great Romanticists, and the pioneers generally, have had to sacrifice it. That so much of our magazine writing lacks restraint, that in spite of its brilliancy it is deficient in charm, in serenity of beauty, is the inevitable penalty which it pays for being contemporaneous. The mental and physical restlessness which impresses the observer of Sargent’s portraits of the men and women of our time, the eager keenness, the total eclipse of contemplation, is typical of our magazine prose. We force the note. “If I don’t exaggerate,” — says a scientist whose laboratory is justly renowned, but whose popular magazine articles give alarm to his friends, — “if I don’t exaggerate, the public will pay no attention to me.” So say the child and the chorus-girl, and all lovers of the lime-light and the megaphone.

Exaggeration, however, may easily be condoned if accompanied by genuine imaginative force. No doubt artists like Mr. Sargent over-accentuate; and the men of the Mermaid Tavern were certainly extravagant; and if Mr. Kipling had really “winked at ’Omer down the road,” Homer, if not too blind, would surely have winked back again. But the vice of the contemporary literary market-place is exuberance without true imaginative life, vivacity of manner coupled with spiritual barrenness. The wares displayed upon the news-stands have never been so sparkling, so varied, so clever, as they are to-day. Nevertheless, test the New Literature in the field where it is supposed to be the strongest, that of the short story. Here is a form suited to the restless activity of our generation, to its incapacity for sustained attention, to its love for concentrated emotional effects. Ask whether our gifted and highly paid story-writers have made in the last decade any such real contribution to the imaginative literature of the world as was made long ago by Poe in his poverty and Hawthorne in his obscurity. To ask such a question is to answer it. We have, no doubt, as Browning said, —

Distinguished names ! — but ’t is, somehow
As if they played at being names
Still more distinguished, like the games
Of children.

There is a still higher test of the imaginative life of an epoch, namely, its poetry. We are living just now in a mood of quickened national feeling. We are at once proud of the America which is before our eyes, and dissatisfied with it. We believe that we can make it better. Is this faith voiced as it should be by our writers ? Let us choose the field of poetry; because, the world over, it is the poets who have usually registered most quickly and most permanently the high tides of national emotion.

The body of tolerably acceptable contemporary verse is enormous. It shows a wide range of thought, and a commendable technique. In one department, at least, it has manifested a notable progress during the past five years; namely, in the poetic drama. Hundreds of men and women are now writing plays in verse. They are giving a new vitality, new imaginative possibilities, to the American stage. Our lyric poets are beyond counting. Mr. Stedman gathered the work of six hundred of them into his anthology, many years ago. But this number does not represent a tithe of the persons who habitually or intermittently produce verse.

Yet how rarely, in the mass of lyric verse, does one catch the national note! More sonnets are written about John Keats than about the United States of America. It is no wonder that the National Institute of Arts and Letters is considering the wisdom of offering a prize for the words and music of a national anthem to take the place of the “ Star-Spangled Banner.” This so-called national song is a production whose sincerity of feeling demands respect, but which very inadequately expresses those ideals in which this nation was established and by virtue of which it has been maintained. It is true that the adequate expression of national character and purpose by means of any of the arts is no light task. It is not often accomplished by trying to do it. A nation’s unconscious spokesmen are usually the most eloquent and sincere. The Institute may some day cut from the poet’s corner of a newspaper a better anthem than it will secure by offering a prize. Our poets may surely be counted upon, from time to time, to endow with beauty some symbol of the nation’s life, like the flag in Francis Key’s “Star-Spangled Banner,” the worn battleship in “Old Ironsides,” the dead hero in Whitman’s “My Captain.” Seers and idealists like Emerson and Lowell have in hours of national trial asserted, and by their assertion renewed, a faith in the undying ideals of the Republic. The stock of seers and idealists will never die out. Our writers of patriotic verse may have to hesitate now and then between the moods of patriotism and humanitarianism. They may be tempted, as Mr. Kipling has occasionally been tempted, by the mere violent and resonant phrases of political declamation; they may forget that in enduring poetry the interests of the one race must be identified with the larger interests of man. But national verse of some kind — however defective in universal values — will certainly be written here.

The poet does not create these national convictions and desires. He rests back upon them, he is borne up and onward by them, as a swimmer yields himself to the surf. So Sophocles wrote in the glorious hour of Greek freedom and faith, so wrote in flame and music the believing Florentine; so wrote the great Elizabethans, and the Frenchmen of the court of Louis the Fourteenth; in the strength of a new hope for our old humanity, so wrote the young Wordsworth and Coleridge before the Revolution, and the forever young Byron and Shelley after it; so wrote Emerson in the serene optimism of the Concord Hymn, and Lowell in the poignant sorrow, the passionate exaltation of the Commemoration Ode. Poetry like this cannot be written by wanting to write it. It is the spontaneous overflow of national vitality.

But when doubt enters, and confusion of standards, with searching analysis and painful reconstruction of the foundations of governmental theory and of social order, the poetry changes too. We may have under such conditions very true poetry, very subtle and musical and personal poetry, yet never the full national note. There are many tasks for the human spirit, no doubt, which are more essential to its welfare and advance than the composition of verse. It is better to do away with some of the causes of poverty than to compose “ The Song of the Shirt;” to oversee and control or abolish the sweat-shop than to sentimentalize over it; better to secure civic decency and honesty and order than to chant a national hymn in long or short metre. And yet poetry, in age after age, has been the natural expression of those moments of wide joyous vision when a nation pauses an instant in its upward progress to breathe free and to look far.

Have we yet reached such a moment in the United States ? In Europe the great optimisms of the middle of last century seem to have exhausted themselves. The hopes expressed in Tennyson’s first “Locksley Hall ” were confessed in the second “ Locksley Hall ” to be failures. Critics assure us that the general European outlook is not favorable to the development of any widespread high emotion, born of strenuous faith. But this intellectual and spiritual depression, if it be such, has not reached us here. In spite of every temporary blunder or disaster, we Americans go triumphantly, humorously ahead. Yet if we ask ourselves whether there is a fund of emotional energy directed toward a common end, and overflowing into great verse, we must answer in the negative. There is no lack of patriotism, but the specific issues of the hour seem unrelated to one another, or at least do not easily lend themselves to poetry. In the national campaign just closed, there was hardly a song that rose above the doggerel “ Tippecanoe and Tyler too ” of 1840. “ Prosperity ” is an excellent watchword, but the Muses have seldom been inspired by the full dinner-pail and the rising market. The sources of great poetry are in the greater emotions. The temper of mere commercialism is a secret foe to patriotic feeling. The admiration for material forces — for heavier battleships and deeper subways and swifter transportation — has resulted in no noble verse. Even the moral issues of the day, though sung here and there by some local poet, have failed thus far to give us such stirring verse as was inspired by the Corn Law agitation in England.

That our citizens are awake to these moral issues is unquestionable. They have been utilized effectively in the short story and the political novel. But the hour for that unification of feeling essential to the life of national poetry has apparently not yet come. The New Literature is not yet representative of the best thinking and feeling of the country. The magazines are more immediately representative, no doubt, than books; but they are less truly representative than the newspapers. The dally press gives a more adequate and upon the whole a more reassuring indication of the trend of contemporary affairs than do the magazines. But back of even the press are the people, unadvertised, unrepresented, or misrepresented, in prose and verse, and yet working out day by day our national destiny. The real laboring man is very different from the brawny fellow with a baker’s paper cap and a blacksmith’s hammer who does duty for Labor in the political cartoons. The farmer who really farms does not wear the goat’s beard and the striped trousers of the caricatures. The American young man is travestied by those firm-chinned, tailor-made creatures who clutch their hair thoughtfully in the magazines ; and if the real American girl were like her pictures, we should despair of the Republic.

It is this unadvertised majority, this unheralded multitude, that walks quietly to the polls and renders a common-sense verdict, which holds the key to the literary as well as to the political future. Politicians misunderstand it; they prophesy the defeat of a man like Governor Hughes because they have not the imagination to see which way the people are marching. The New Literature, likewise, has not yet proved itself sufficiently ample for its task of national interpretation. In fact, the profession of literature has never enlisted, and is not now enlisting, the Americans of foremost power. Imagination is playing all around us like heat lightning, — imagination in business, imagination in science and in social reconstruction. But, with a few rare exceptions like Mark Twain, literature has not attracted men broad-minded enough to understand the full spirit of American democracy.

Here is an immense country, made up of men and women from many stocks, many traditions, many beliefs. And yet in times of national crisis these various sections, these divergent modes of thinking and feeling, have been swiftly subordinated to American modes of feeling, Lincoln, the product of the rude frontier civilization of Kentucky and Illinois, has become our “first American.” The touching canonization of his personality is one of the most striking evidences of our latent capacity for unified feeling. The centenary of his birth, soon to be celebrated, will draw our people into still closer bonds. Everybody now sees, as some could not see in Lincoln’s lifetime, that here was a man saturated in American principles, with the most intense faith in American character, penetrating with almost preternatural insight into the conditions of our American problem.

The remembrance of Lincoln gives a hint of the laws which must govern the expression of our national life through literature. We must find men broad enough to understand the American spirit, and with the gift of expressing it, as Lincoln did, in simple terms. We must wait, perhaps, for a still deeper community of feeling, for the growth of a more distinct conception of American national ideals, and of the relation of these ideals to civilization.

To this linking of our democracy with civilization any discussion of American national literature must inevitably lead. There is no better definition of civilization than that once given by the late Lord Russell of Killowen before the American Bar Association in Saratoga: “Its true signs are thought for the poor and suffering, chivalrous regard and respect for woman, the frank recognition of human brotherhood, irrespective of race or color or nation or religion; the narrowing of the domain of mere force as a governing factor in the world, the love of ordered freedom, abhorrence of what is mean and cruel and vile, ceaseless devotion to the claims of justice.”

And one may put beside those words of a brilliant Irishman the following words, addressed to a company of New Englanders united in an unpopular cause. The speaker was William James, whom Mr, Alden selects as a type of the New Literature, but who surely employs, in these sentences, the clear accent of the Old: “The great international and cosmopolitan liberal party, the party of conscience and intelligence the world over, has absorbed us; and we are only its American section, carrying on the war against the powers of darkness here, playing our part in the long, long campaign for truth and fair dealing which must go on in all the countries of the world until the end of time. Let us cheerfully settle into our interminable task. Everywhere it is the same struggle under various names — light against darkness, right against might, love against hate. The Lord of Life is with us, and we cannot permanently fail.”

Those are definitions of human progress as given by a jurist and a psychologist. Each individual, each magazine that aspires to be a true Journal of Civilization, must rewrite those definitions in the terms of its own opportunity. The proof of national greatness does not lie primarily in verse or prose; it is rather in the cheerful acceptance of every national responsibility, the undertaking of any task demanded by twentieth-century civilization. If American ideals remain noble, if American life grows increasingly rich and joyous for all, we shall not care very much whether we have national poetry; but it is out of that divine carelessness, that serene consciousness of victorious energy, that poetry is born.

B. P.

  1. The Atlantic, April, 1905.
  2. Charles Miner Thompson, in the Atlantic for August, 1908.