To confess one’s self a confirmed and complacent novel-reader for fifty or sixty years may seem a humiliating, even a stultifying, admission, yet every department of human thought yields gold to the persistent prospector. It is as profitable to ‘stay with’ novel-reading as with severer forms of intellectual endeavor. The substantial rewards may be late in coming, but they do arrive. If, as children, we who are predestined novel-readers read chiefly for the story, and, as youths, chiefly for style and form, in maturer years, while we may seem to be devouring merely as a pastime the heaps of fiction that fall twice yearly from the press, eating them up as a girl eats bonbons, the truth is that, having arrived at the time of life when generalizing is inevitable, we find in this confused, parti-colored pile, so delicately redolent of paper and printer’s ink, much food for generalization, and a rich contribution to our knowledge of current emotion.
All the great and most of the little movements of the day make their way into fiction rather speedily: sometimes explicitly and with intention; sometimes, and this is even more interesting, blindly and implicitly. Here, to-day, is the great ‘march past’ of the tastes, opinions, passions, and ethical ideas of our fellows. To review this motley troop is to gain a certain insight, not otherwise easily obtainable, not only into the main currents of contemporary thought and feeling, but also into the cross-currents, drifts, and eddies due to the complications of our society. If, often, these records are neither literature nor life, at least they do not fail of being personality. If the new writer (they are almost all new writers nowadays!) tells us nothing else very valuable, he gives us a pretty clear notion of his own attitude toward life and art; even when oblivious of the latter and biased as to the former, he throws the spot-light on the point of view of one more human creature with parts and passions like ourselves. This is not what he means to do, but for the reader it may often prove the better part of his performance.
Obviously, to read with this in view means that we are no longer judging novels chiefly as literature or with strictest reference to the canons of perfection whose results we knew and loved aforetime. In the last fifteen years, life has rushed into fiction and trampled those canons a little rudely at times. Needless to say, the happiest literary results are still secured when life and art join hands, but this union is not, to-day, so frequent or so perfect, as one could desire. If, then, one reads current novels very extensively, and judges them, one must read them for other qualities than their artistry. Putting aside the finer critical standards, one must be willing to rejoice in them, where it is possible, as life, as experience, as intimations of the human struggle, as broken fragments of the human dream.
Some twenty-five years ago Robert. Bridges, then and for years afterward the lightest-of-hand and most acute of our critics of fiction, made strong complaint of the lack of novels dealing with men and their affairs; there was, he claimed, a field for tales of business and the professions. At that time this was a new suggestion. There was not even any very large amount of reading-matter for the tired business man, let alone notable novels about him. He read the Henty books and the Youth’s Companion for his amusement, and Silas Lapham was almost his only representative in the higher walks of literature. The most conspicuous and significant development of our fiction in the quarter-century has been along these two lines. Novels are no longer written mainly for or about women. The majority of them, in importance as well as numbers, are for and about men. I remember wondering as I read Mr. Bridges’s complaint, how novelists were going to unite the practical experience necessary to depict large affairs with the retirement and study necessary to learn to write, never suspecting the answer — that many of the most popular would write without learning how!
Three or four years later began the still-rising flood of historical romances, of tales of gore and crime, whose popularity has remained and increased. Some of them were pretty enough, and some were poor indeed. The average technique of this particular kind of story has improved wonderfully in the last eight years, an amendment largely due, one suspects, to the standards and rewards of the one American periodical which conspicuously caters to the average male reader.
A little later the novel of achievement, of the material activities of men, began to come into its reward. Here lies the future stronghold of the American novelist. There is bound to be a movement in literature reflecting our material expansion and commensurate with it. The most noteworthy novel of the winter, Theodore Dreiser’s The Financier1 lies wholly in this field.
The Financier is an imposing book, both in intention and execution. If it resembles a biography more than a work of art, that, doubtless, is an aspect of the matter with which the author deliberately reckoned before he began. The critic is entitled to ignore it in view of Mr. Dreiser’s success in presenting an intimate picture of the development of a man of financial genius whose kind is only too common in America. Should the type become extinct (Heaven speed the day!) and the novel survive, our descendants will have in it the means of reconstructing for themselves the business life and immorality of a whole period.
The book details with endless particularity, but forcefully, the character and career of Frank Cowperwood, a Philadelphia boy: his rise in the financial world, his rocket-like descent to the status of a convict, and the means by which he, later, recoups his fallen fortunes. The picture includes his business associates, alleged friends, entire family connection, and the family of the girl whom he finally marries after a long liaison, wrecking a first marriage. The author has all these threads of his tapestry well in hand, and no less clear is his presentation of the ins and outs of Philadelphia politics, and the opportunities they afforded for unscrupulous money-making. So painstaking, so lavish of detail, so determined to cover the large canvas closely, is he, that he seems to propose to himself the feats of an American Balzac. If this is the case, he has made a good beginning and is alone in a field that is ready for harvest.
Perhaps the most extraordinary quality of this unusual book is the dryness of its atmosphere. We are reminded of those caverns where nothing ever decays, where all dead things lie mummified, retaining the outward aspect of life for centuries. This effect is, in part, intentional. I do not make out to my own satisfaction whether it is wholly so. Certainly Mr. Dreiser wishes us to feel the extreme aridity of nature in a man like Cowperwood, who sees life under the categories of strength and weakness, and in no other way; certainly also it is hardly possible to overestimate the desiccating effect of absolute materialism in a man of his ability; doubtless, too, the environment and relations of such a man would inevitably tend to grow more and more arid. Still, one would like to ask the author if, as a matter of technique, this juicelessness of the money-maker might not have been brought out more poignantly by the introduction into the book of somebody with a soul — somebody, that is to say, who sees our existence under the categories of good and evil, right and wrong. This is the chief thing that gives atmosphere and perspective to life. Lust and greed, the pride of the flesh and the joy of life, are not shown in their proper values unless they are contrasted with something quite different. This something different, the spirit-side of life as opposed to the material side, is wholly omitted from The Financier. As the book stands, the part of foil is played by a hard-headed old contractor and politician, the father of the girl with whom Cowperwood becomes entangled. Butler is a soft-hearted parent, and is sufficiently shocked and vindictive on learning of the illicit relation in which his daughter exults. He is more nearly human than any other character of the tale, but even he fails really to touch the reader.
Since the death of Frank Norris, no American novelist has attempted anything on the scale of The Financier. Far apart in temperament and method, the two writers are alike in the resolution to do a big thing in a big way. For the novelist, I apprehend that the biggest way of all is one which is, as yet, closed to Mr. Dreiser by his philosophy. One must not be rash in formulating this philosophy, but it seems to be negative, to consist in the belief that life is an insoluble problem, and that the existence of predatory types in nature and society justifies us in indicting that dark Will which places man in a universe where ‘his feet are in the trap of circumstance, his eyes are on an illusion.’
Whatever the truth of such a philosophy, one thing is certain: the consensus of men’s opinions through the centuries has demanded a different basis from this for the enduring things, the great things, in literature. And the long consensus of opinion is our only real criterion. But to quarrel with Mr. Dreiser upon this point is, after all, to praise him, since it makes clear the fact that his achievement must be looked at from the highest ground.
A man’s philosophy is determined in part by his length of days. Knowing nothing as to the fact, I would place the author of The Financier near fortythree— too old for the optimism of youth, too young for the optimism of late middle life. If the horribly cold and insanely bitter realism of Strindberg melted at sixty, under the impact of life, into a believing mysticism, who can say what insight and tenderness, what softness of atmosphere and richness of feeling, a dozen years may not add to the already very notable performances of Mr. Dreiser?
One cannot help wishing that Mark Lee Luther might have attacked the making of The Woman of It2 in somewhat the same spirit in which Mr. Dreiser assailed The Financier. The former had a story to tell which would have justified twice as long and painstaking an effort. A country Congressman, who has made a fortune exploiting his wife’s favorite pickles, goes into politics to acquire dignity. Life at the capital does strange things to the futile, weak-principled man; a finishing school docs disagreeable things to his untutored daughter; Yale does amusing things to the pert and practical son. Only the simple, domestic-minded wife keeps her heart in the right place, and her head sufficiently unturned to resolve the tangles into which her family get themselves. There are the ‘makings’ of something substantial and distinctively American here.
The Olympian3 by James Oppenheim, a writer of vigorous short stories, also essays the field of big business. The hero comes to New York from Iowa to conquer the world and to become, eventually, a steel magnate, by marriage. The early steps of his career are convincing enough, for his creator evidently knows the stuff in which he is working; but later on the texture of the tale grows looser and attention falters, palpably because the writer does not know enough about steel, or magnates, or matrimony, to make them absorbing to us. This difficulty is one which the young writer frequently encounters when he attempts a large theme demanding realistic treatment. It raises a question worth considering, namely, what are the most fortunate themes for young writers to attack?
Obviously, if literature is the calling with which a youth is called, he cannot defer the pursuit of his profession until middle life furnishes him with the rich experience and mature judgment a realist requires. Once or twice in a century there appears a writer under thirty whose literary judgments of life the man over thirty-five will listen to. But one may have a very real and worth-while talent for literature without being one of these exceptional intelligences. If this talent betakes itself to romance, — the natural element for young talent, — there result such dewy successes as R. H. Davis and some others knew at the start. But if, like James Oppenheim, the young writer burns to attack serious subjects in a large way while yet his reach exceeds his grasp, what must he do about it? Prudence would counsel him to stick to the short story, but this, while practical, is no solution of the problem.
Doubtless many answers are possible. Owen Johnson has recently found one that meets with general approval. The young English author of A Prelude to Adventure4 has found another. His book has to do wholly with undergraduate life at Cambridge. With a single blow struck in anger, the hero kills a fellow student whom he has so despised that his conscience immediately assumes the burden of murder without thought of evasion. There is nothing to connect him with the act but his own knowledge. The reaction of the event upon his own mind, and the minds of the two men to whom it becomes known, makes a singularly direct and powerful story. The writer assumes that the deed brought with it instant certainty, never experienced before, of a God as an everpresent reality, and an increasing consciousness that, as he had broken the normal relation of man to his fellow by the act, so he must, by following the inner leading which he recognizes as God’s pursuit of him, work out as the way is shown him the debt he has contracted to society. Here we have our ancient acquaintances ‘conscience’ and ‘remorse’ in work-a-day garments. Their names are never so much as mentioned, so intent is the author on the reality of the feelings for which those words have become hackneyed symbols.
Here is a serious theme; and here, granting the premise, is realism; yet no one can say nay to the writer’s facts or his psychology, or accuse him of immaturity. He is thoroughly within his rights in setting, subject, and treatment. The result is a story which carries us wherever it goes. It is grim, certainly, but never repellent; and it is done with such finish that there are no sentences the critical reader would omit, no words he would alter. Hugh Walpole is worth watching.
Walpole’s absolute concentration upon the work in hand, and his belief in it, are qualities which he shares with a very different English writer, Mrs. Barclay. It is because she believes in the stories she has to tell, believes in them every minute, and shows that belief in every line, that she holds her large audiences in spite of their own doubts. She is sentimental certainly, often weakly so, but sentimentality and conviction are a strong combination. Plenty of people who are old enough to know better have a sneaking fondness for them. The Upas Tree5 is particularly strong in both qualities, and should stand second among the author’s successes.
The season’s output of exciting stories — which are related to business life insomuch as the tired business man likes to get them from the circulating libraries and read them o’ winter nights because they tend to keep him awake — is large and meritorious. Among the best are Smoke Bellew,6The Closing Net,7Good Indian,8The Tempting of Tavernake,9The Net,10The Red Lane,11Billy Fortune,12 and The Drifting Diamond.13 All are good reading, as the phrase goes. From Sicily to the China Sea their scenes are laid, with side-excursions into the Klondike, and stops at London and Paris.
Smoke Bellew is good without approaching the best of Jack London s work; it relates the physical remaking, by hard toil under the primitive conditions of Alaskan life, of a young San Francisco journalist and dilettante, To make the book complete there should have been some demonstration of what Bellew was good for after he was remade. He felt much better, no doubt, to be tough and fit and primitive, but was he not quite as useful in journalism? A hard-muscled, primitive man is a satisfaction to himself, but not of much value to the rest of God’s creatures.
Billy Fortune is a humorous ranchhand whose racy human comments on the stories he has to tell are better than the stories themselves. Probably the fates will never give us another Virginian, but failing that high delight, Billy Fortune is an acceptable understudy to Lin McLean.
The author of The Drifting Diamond is comparatively new at the job of purveying adventure stories to a hungry public, and he is of a generous disposition. Therefore, he gives us good measure of excitement, and several other things which we have no right to expect; they are none the less, but rather the more, a delight. The tale follows the fate of a jewel which takes captive the hearts of men, fascinating them to the point of passion. It appears and disappears on its own dark errands, furnishing always a supreme test of his own character to the enthralled and temporary owner. Into the telling of this tale, set in the Eastern seas, Mr. Colcord has put much imagination, something of poetry, a touch of philosophy, an apprehension of the spiritual values underlying all life — and this without stinting us of our due need of breathless adventure. May he never learn to hold his hand! Is it too much to ask, incidentally, that his publishers provide cover designs less likely to frighten away the sensitive reader?
Mr. Grant Richards also has written an exciting story with a difference. He seems to have said to himself, ‘Why not construct a tale of the favorite American type in which dark adventure and high finance dovetail, but write it with a chiseled style? Why not drape the steel frame with orchids? Why not be witty, cultivated, elaborate, in this species of writing, no less than if one proposed a Meredithian task? Is there any objection to a wellmannered, civilized hero who knows how to eat, to drink, to dress, who is really connoisseur as well as good-liver? Let me take such an Englishman and give him a love-affair with an American girl; let me add such custom-staled elements of interest as high play at Monte Carlo, miraculous wealth made in a day on Wall Street, the kidnapping of a man by his opponents in the financial game, and see if I cannot make of the mélange something piquant, flavorsome, appetizing.' The result is Caviare,14 and it is truly an adventure story de luxe.
The immigration problem is a very serious and discouraging affair when looked squarely in the face, but as broken into fragments and reflected in such books as Eve’s Other Children,15 Mrs. Van Slyke’s stories of the Syrian quarter in Brooklyn, or Ellcan Lubliner, American,16 it loses some of its terrors. Both writers are optimists, and their work makes one feel that, in spite of the decadence of New England and all one’s worst fears, the melting-pot may yet prove a crucible for something precious, instead of the witches’ cauldron it has undoubtedly appeared to the sane citizen since the immigration from southern Europe began. Whether or not it is well politically to have our fears thus allayed, as a literary sensation the effect is distinctly pleasing.
Miss 318 and Mr. 3717 by Rupert Hughes, is the love-story of a fireman and a girl in a department store. Judging by dialect, one might almost classify it among the literary excursions into our foreign quarters, but the sturdy quality of the human nature offered for inspection is such as we are glad to think American. Mr. Hughes has a mastery over his material, a grip on the essentials of life, and a vigorous, clear-cut way of expressing himself. These things would have made his work conspicuous twenty-five years ago, but to-day he is pressed hard by a dozen or so of short-story writers almost equally worth while. It has always been conceded that our authors have the art of the short story as none save the great Frenchmen have ever possessed it, but never has it been so able-bodied, so mature, so richly representative of our manifold life and its underlying spirit, as it is to-day.
At the other pole from the books for the tired business man lies the small and select class of tales for those whose fiction flavors a pleasant leisure. These are the books which lie about on mahogany work-stands and bed-side tables, dipped into at moments as their readers might sip tea or partake of sweets. Such an audience does not demand the excitement of swift action; liking sentiment, it does not reject reflection, and has a palate for the flavors and sub-flavors of style. The books which please these readers best are usually, when ripest and most genial, the product of the masculine mind, and the mind of an Englishman at that! The London Lavender18 of Mr. Lucas is one of these agreeable, friendly volumes; Pujol,19Prudent Priscilla,20Concerning Sally,21The Arm-Chair at the Inn,22 and The Heroine in Bronze,23 are other well-finished examples of this kind. James Lane Allen’s filagreed style was never so dainty as in the latter tale, and F. Hopkinson Smith’s bric-a-brac, table-service, and food were never more elaborate and picturesque than in The Arm-Chair at the Inn. It contains, besides, among the storiettes applied on that effective background two — namely, the anecdotes of the penguin people and of the cannibal’s wife — that are of singular poignancy and interest. Locke, of course, is almost a contemporary classic in this style, and Pujol, if not quite his delightful best, is still abundantly good. Mr. Hopkins is rapidly becoming,if he has not already become, one of the most pleasing exemplars in America of this kind of fiction. His Sally, an adorable child who carries the weight of a whole family upon her competent, if often weary, shoulders, is a satisfactory small chip of Plymouth Rock; but I confess that of all this group Prudent Priscilla amuses me most. She is gently, deliciously humorous; it is as though the maid on a Watteau fan shyly opened her inviting lips and related the story of her life, revealing herself as a tender-souled person whose well-meant Christian efforts at sympathy are always placing her in droll dilemmas.
The Romance of Billy Goat Hill,24 and The Inheritance,25 might be included in fiction for the leisurely. Though the latter story has a clean-cut and definitely interesting plot, the main intent seems to be to bring back the atmosphere of the eighties as it looked to those who were young in that decade. Mrs. Bacon is very successful in handling the form of story-telling by reminiscence, and though not herself entitled to any pose of middle age, she has undeniably diffused this story of youth in a Connecticut town with the mellow autumnal glow that warms old and young alike.
Considering the conspicuous part played by the feminist movement in the serious literature of the day, its reflection in current fiction is inconsiderable. This sets one wondering if the importance of feminism to the people who really matter most in any movement, namely the middle-class fathers, mothers, and offspring the country over, has not been vastly exaggerated, for fiction now takes on very rapidly the colors of life in these things. Perhaps feminism and A Woman of Genius26 ought not to be mentioned together, for the heroine of Mrs. Austin’s novel admits that hers is a case apart. Her story only serves to confirm the traditional difficulty of having one’s cake and eating it too. It is the struggle of a woman with the histrionic gift, first, to achieve an opening for self-expression, and, again, against her other self—when her fullfledged career seems in her eyes to forbid her the domestic life and love she really craves.
Any one who can stand this book at all, will find it very interesting. Many fastidious readers will not be able to stand it, because it reveals somewhat nakedly the workings of an egotistic soul. Olivia Lattimore presents herself as self-centred, bitter, lax. She hews out no philosophy, she achieves no principles, she makes no one happy, not even herself. On the other hand, she works hard at her art, is generous where it costs her nothing, has many emotions, a clever tongue, a mordant wit, flashes of insight, and what she calls her supernal Gift which ‘does with her what it wills.’ She snatches with one hand what she throws away with the of her. She wants to make the world over so that women of her type can be beloved wives, revered mothers, contented housekeepers, at the same time that they yield themselves to passion and dedicate themselves to art. Well — it can’t be done. Women do very much as they please nowadays, but it is a mathematical certainty that one can no more manage two diametrically opposed lives than two bodies can occupy the same space at the same time. This is not saying that Olivia and her lover might not have achieved a comfortable compromise between their warring interests. Both were stupid and selfish, but Olivia the more so. She blames Taylorville, Ohianna, organized society, and, above all, the domestic woman, because none of them instructed her as to how justice might be done simultaneously to a stage career and to a husband and two step-children.
There are some feminine tragedies for which society is deeply to blame, but Olivia’s is not of them. Curiously enough it never occurs to her that it is the chief duty of an individual to work out the answer to his own problems, thus accomplishing the end for which he was born, and realizing his own soul.
The present reviewer knows little or nothing about geniuses, men or women, having encountered only three or four who could be thus classified. None of these ever so much as mentioned a desire for self-expression. They had in common a brave acceptance of their limitations, human or feminine, as part of the game of life and work. It is ill generalizing from such scanty data, but their attitude leads one to suspect that bitterness and rebellion spring from insufficient or diseased talent. Possibly clever, unhappy, interesting Olivia was not a woman of genius after all!
The Wind before the Dawn27 and The Soddy28 are books that bring life near, in spite of faulty technique. The former is a large-minded story of a Kansas farmer’s wife, having in it something of the breadth of the prairies and the stir of the prairie winds. The writer has hampered herself with a thesis, namely, that the lot of the farmer’s wife will be blessed, and her marital relations satisfactory, only when she has financial independence; but Mrs. Munger has enough of the story-teller’s instinct to hold her preaching in check. Besides, as theories go, this one has justice on its side. Where Olivia Lattimore had a ‘grouch, ’ Elizabeth Hunter had a genuine grievance, and one should be able to listen patiently to the latter, even in fiction. One may doubt whether a ‘mean ’ man like John Hunter would be so easily reformed by economic means as the writer believes, but perhaps it is worth trying.
Conflict between husband and wife is the theme of The Soddy also, but here the author escapes from feminist propaganda into the region of the personal. Her question is: when a husband has once imbued a wife with his enthusiasm, his ideal, is he entitled to lose the former, change the latter, and expect her to follow him? The answer is, No, not even if both starve to death in the process of holding fast their first belief! This is uncompromising, but also so rare as to be rather refreshing. The husband’s enthusiasm, in this instance, is for the semi-arid lands of Nebraska and the sod house of the pioneer, and the young wife refuses to leave them when he returns, beaten, to the East to earn the bread the plains denied them. Common sense is distinctly against the wife in her struggle, but then, common sense and enthusiasm have long been enemies, and even in this practical world the former does not always win.
Merely as studies in enthusiasm, there could hardly be two finer, more vividly contrasting, pieces of work than A Picked Company,29 and The Children of Light,30 The former tale crystallizes about the great desire of a righteous man, seventy years ago, to follow the Oregon trail into a new land, taking with him such chosen folk, and such only, as would aid in the upbuilding of a commonwealth of God; the latter deals with the great desire of the young sons and daughters of wealth to-day to create in the slums of industry a fair new life and conditions. It is good to ponder these two books together. The characters in the first rely solely on God and the righteousness of the individual; in the second, they rely on economic propaganda and the development of socialism. The reader is entitled to suspect that by neither of these means alone shall the world be fully saved. The social conscience must work for a world fit to live in, and the individual conscience for a self that is fit to be alive, before the New Jerusalem shall descend like a bride adorned to this our earth.
It must be said that the religion of A Picked Company made more powerful and vital characters than the religion of The Children of Light. The strongest and most useful of the latter are Helen, who refuses to enter their economic fold, and Cyril the martyr, whose weapon is prayer. But I know no more delightful children in recent literature than these young people in their earlier days. The chapter of their plays entitled, ‘A Franciscan Revival’ is so visualized that it seems painted rather than written; it quivers with the exquisite, naïve beauty of certain early Italian paintings. The whole book, indeed, is tremulous with feeling, as a book which deals with young enthusiasm has need to be. Nevertheless, the writer is incomparably more persuasive as a preacher, when, as in the chapter cited, she is most wholeheartedly the artist.
Cease Firing31 is not in any proper sense a novel. It is history and elegy, a tapestry shot through here and there with the scarlet thread of individual tragedy. War itself is protagonist here as in The Long Roll, and individuals are only introduced that in their swift loves, brief matings, great loyalties, and heart-crushing deaths we may taste more implacably the strange and bitter cup that war must always be to the individual. Miss Johnston’s long labor of love is a work apart, and not on the plane of things to be praised or censured. To come upon it in company with the fiction of the day is like hearing down a glittering, busy street the roll of a drum and the vibrant beat of that Funeral March which seems always to strike on the naked heart.
The most interesting thing about the novels of H. G. Wells is the record they contain of the author’s own development. Air. Wells, as some shrewd observer said of certain English radicals, is educating himself in public. Do such writers guess how many shrewd eyes note their crises and comment upon the slow eduction of their philosophy?
I know a group of readers who delighted, some sixteen years ago, in that clever skit, The Wonderful Visit, wherein Wells gayly outlined the way this world would strike an angel — an angel of art, not of religion — if he fell through into our atmosphere by accident. These readers followed him closely thereafter, bearing with his Islands, Sleepers, Martians, as necessary pot-boilers, waiting expectant of something fine. In their judgment it did not come, and finally they rebelled. Wells, they said justly, had no conviction, no philosophy, no clue to the labyrinth, no glimpse of the Gleam. His criticisms of life were as little helpful as those of his own puzzled angel; all he could do was to depict hopelessly muddled creatures in a hopelessly muddled world. They tore him to tatters for continuing novelist with only this to offer — and surely he deserved it. Yet all the time his popularity increased. The reason dawned slowly upon these critics, but at last they recognized that the essentially modern world for which Wells writes is, itself, muddled, drab, uncertain, not learning its lessons, not holding fast its clues. Such a world finds its faithful reflection reassuring. Two years ago, in Mr. Polly, appeared a braver note. For, though his heart’s desire was but the humble comfort of a riverside inn, Mr. Polly knew what he wanted, and fought for it. By that much he exceeded Wells’s other heroes and announced himself a Man. If his creator had really learned that we are on earth to fight for whatever is,to us,the surpassing beauty, then he might learn anything!
A member of this circle wrote of Marriage,32 ‘I am enthusiastic over it. For, more and more, Wells really thinks about life as it is. He may not always think logically or coherently, but he is always candid, and you know that, so far as his thinking has gone, you are getting the best of his conclusions.’
Marriage is a book built up on certain axioms of the sociologist, as a sculptor builds a clay figure on supporting sticks. The particular generalizations which serve as skeletons for Trafford and Marjorie are the well-worn statements that man is the more kinetic, spasmodic, intense, and abstract; woman the more static, stoical, vividly concrete, and detailed of the sexes. Their first meeting is sufficiently striking. Trafford falls from a monoplane at Marjorie’s feet just after her engagement to another man, and their subsequent romance makes headway against many external difficulties. They marry; Marjorie spends too much money beautifying the domestic life; Trafford gives up research work, his calling and passion for applied science, that Marjorie may have enough to spend; Marjorie promptly enlarges all her schemes of living so as to spend still more.
With financial success, life palls on Trafford. He is rich enough to stop working, but research no longer lures; social problems disturb him; he and Marjorie, though still fond, have grown apart. He develops an immense, tragic discontent, a desire to go into the wilderness and think about life. At last the two undertake a winter in the Labrador wilds. Primitive life, hard work, the iron air, make them forget their problems. The very best thing in the book is this clear apprehension that where the life of a man and a woman is lived in the open, in necessary mutual helpfulness, marriage has no problems. It takes cities, alleged civilization, comforts, to develop senseless, fatal discontents. Trafford is clawed by a lynx, and breaks a leg while hunting. The heroic efforts these events impose on Marjorie bring the pair close together again in that unity maintained by service and tenderness.
They have their talk out at last. In this discourse it is made clear that Trafford is less an individual than the Man of sociology, the seeking spirit reaching out vaguely, muddled still, into the void after truth, solutions, God. Marjorie is less an individual than the embodiment of all the concrete, detailed tendencies evolution has forced on the woman, including, happily, the supreme tendency to do the uttermost for the man heaven has given her, even to the effacing of her legitimate qualities. The thing Trafford demands of his wife is the sacrifice of her evolutionary attributes to his evolutionary attributes, and, once she sees the point, she joyously promises it.
Just here one’s mind recurs to Olivia Lattimore and her predicament. Undeniably, if Olivia could not have her cake and eat it, neither in strict justice can Trafford. He is better mannered than Olivia, but their problems are the same. The fact seems to be that the highly evolved individual is willing neither to remain an unmated half of the biological unit that man and woman together become, nor to make the needful sacrifice of personality involved in entering that unit. If we maintain that woman must pay the price for what she wants, and that it is in better taste to pay it silently, then, in equity, we must ask the same of man. In real life, men usually settle this particular account without unseemly haggling. However, we infer that Mr. Wells thinks they should not do so. Marjorie has a flash of insight in which she secs that women are the responsible sex; that their final mission is to save men from feminine demands, to save them for dreaming, for creative pondering, to the end that, the world may finally, somehow, be saved. With this understanding between them, the Trafl’ords leave Labrador, and Mr. Wells drops the curtain. This is ‘so far as his thinking has gone’ about marriage. Marjorie’s conclusion that it is her part to sacrifice, is probably masculinism as opposed to feminism, but it has behind it precisely those powerful sanctions of experience and convention to which Wells is usually opposed on general principles. One suspects that the great thing he has yet to learn is that most sanctions of experience and convention arc based on something deep and vital.
Trafford recognizably presents the author’s apology for that gravness and lack of conviction we find so irritating. There is, he claims, no real faith in thought and knowledge yet; religions and philosophies have pretended too much; the immortal idea is just now struggling to be born; therefore the mind must be detached, must observe and synthesize at leisure. From this point of view lack, or rather postponement, of conviction makes almost the demand of religion. They also serve who only stand and wait., recording whatever may, by any means, increase comprehension of the great idea for the birt h of which men stand expectant..
Is it unfair criticism to say that here we have Wells’s own mental peculiarities shaped into a philosophy which is practically a religion? He has plodded along, working according to his bent. Gradually, as happens to all candid thinkers, the light that lightens every man who comes into the world, filters down into the dim places of mind and soul. Comprehension begins, the seeds of conviction are sown, but because they have not yet sprouted richly, he feels that the world is all expectancy. — What if it is Wells, and not the world, that is waiting for light?
Mrs. Wharton’s style has never been smoother, more masterly, more enriched by felicitous phrases connoting what other writers must say clumsily in half a page, than in The Reef.33 And this is well, for never has she essayed a theme so demanding the service of a flexible, perfect style. She writes of the reef of incidental lust, emerging from primeval ooze into the shallower channels of being, there to menace the incoming cargoes of ships which have long been steadily homeward bound. If this is a slightly florid description of her subject-matter, one can only say it seems to demand the palliation of whatever sentiment one may be able to bring to it.
The book is admirably clever and wonderfully done, but the people who are likely to inquire most pointedly whether it was worth doing are, precisely, the enthusiastic admirers of Ethan Frame and The House of Mirth. In the light of those notable achievements, The Reef does indeed appear meagre and inadequate. The Gallic theory regards such themes as appropriate subjects for literature because of their psychological value; the English-writing world pretty consistently holds that perversities of impulse, at war with the whole bent and direction of a character, only become literary subject-matter by taking part in the making of a man who finally forces his feet to carry him whither he would go. Mrs. Wharton eschews both theories, choosing only to show that distressing but lightly considered incidents may involve the actors in them in sudden, almost cyclonic, drama. That this drama ends as polite comedy is one’s final arraignment of the story. Neither George Darrow nor Mrs. Leath, his fiancée, is real enough to be important except as a comedy figure. Darrow is civilly distressed, and Mrs. Leath is appropriately agonized, jealous, or comprehending, as occasion demands, but one never feels them flesh and blood. The only person in the book who bleeds when stabbed is poor, discredited little Sophie Viner. She not only monopolizes all the vitality, but also all the finer feelings and all the force of character in the story. Next to hers in vividness is the portrait of Mrs. Leath’s deceased husband. This partiality in the distribution of qualities makes one suspect that the author herself does not find the chief figures very congenial creations. She seems to have proposed the plot to herself as a mathematician sets himself a problem. As a tour de force it succeeds, but Mrs. Wharton’s enduring successes are of another nature.
As the basal incident of The Reef is sheer flesh, so is that of The Flaw in the Crystal34 sheer spirit. It is equally difficult to handle, — such is our dual world, — and it is handled with a mastery that equally demands our admiration. Whether or not you believe in the gift of healing as a psychic endowment when you begin, you will believe in it sufficiently for all literary purposes before you finish. That is, you will freely admit that, if it exists, it must inevitably be the thing Agatha Verrall found it, and it must be conditioned and limited as she tentatively and agonizingly experienced it to be. These are large concessions, but Miss Sinclair is entitled to them by virtue of the great lucidity with which she has set forth her heroine’s experience. That it takes place in a world apart, which most of us do not explore, does not at all impair the value of the limpid directness with which it is recited. Most accounts of psychic experiences appear nebulous, not to say murky, whether we read or hear them, but this has a really crystalline clarity. It is instructive to see what, a restrained and finished art can do with material usually left to a befogged enthusiasm.
It is, as we premised, only fair, as well as richly compensating, to measure a novel by its intimations of life, but we do inevitably measure the novelist by his execution. With this difference clearly in view, we must confess Mrs. Wharton and Miss Sinclair have distanced their competitors in the season’s fiction. Both have managed to say the unsayable, and to say it with distinction.
- The Financier. By THEODORE DREISER. New York: Harper & Bros.↩
- The Woman of It. By MARK LEE LUTHER. New York: Harper & Bros.↩
- The Olympian. By JAMES OPPENHEIM. New York: Harper & Bros.↩
- A Prelude to Adventure. By HUGH WALPOLE. New York: The Century Co.↩
- The Upas Tree. By FLORENCE BARCLAY. New York: G. P, Putnam’s Sons.↩
- Smoke Bellew. By JACK LONDON. New York: The Century Co.↩
- The Closing Net. By H. C. ROWLAND. New York: Dodd, Mead & Co.↩
- Good Indian. By BEATRICE M. BOWER. Boston: Little Brown & Co.↩
- The Tempting of Tavernake. By E. PHILLIPS OPPENHEIM. Boston: Little, Brown & Co.↩
- The Net. By REX BEACH. New York: Harper & Bros.↩
- The Red Lane. By HOLMAN DAY. New York: Harper & Bros.↩
- Billy Fortune. BY WILLIAM R. LIGHTON. New York: D. Appleton & Co.↩
- The Drifting Diamond. By LINCOLN COLCORD. New York: The Macmillan Co.↩
- Caviare. By GRANT RICHARDS. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Co.↩
- Eve’s Other Children. By LUCILE BALDWIN VAN SLYKE. New York: F. A. Stokes & Co.↩
- Elkan Lubliner, American. By MONTAGUE GLASS. New York: Doubleday, Page & Co.↩
- Miss 318 and Mr. 37. By RUPERT HUGHES. New York: Fleming H. Revell Co.↩
- London Lavender. By E. V. LUCAS. New York: The Macmillan Co.↩
- The Joyous Adventures of Aristide Pujol. By W. J. LOCKE. New York: The John Lane Company.↩
- Prudent Priscilla. By MARY C. E. WEMYSS. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Co.↩
- Concerning Sally. By W. J. HOPKINS. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Co.↩
- The Arm-Chair at the Inn. By F. HOPKINSON SMITH. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.↩
- The Heroine in Bronze. By JAMES LANE ALLEN. New York: The Macmillan Co.↩
- The Romance of Billy Goat Hill. By ALICE HEGAN RICE. New York: The Century Co.↩
- The Inheritance. By JOSEPHINE DASKAM BACON. New York: D. Appleton & Co.↩
- A Woman of Genius. By MARY AUSTIN. New York: Doubleday, Page & Co.↩
- The Wind before the Dawn. By DELL H. MUNGER. New York: Doubleday, Page & Co.↩
- The Soddy. By SARAH COMSTOCK. New York: Double day, Page & Co.↩
- A Picked Company. By MARY HALLOCK FOOTE. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Co.↩
- The Children of Light. By FLORENCE CONVERSE. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Co.↩
- Cease Firing. By MARY JOHNSTON. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Co.↩
- Marriage. By H. G. WELLS. New York: Duffield & Co.↩
- The Reef. By EDITH WHARTON. New York: D. Appleton & Co.↩
- The Flaw in the Crystal. By MAY SINCLAIR. New York: E. P. Dutton & Co.↩