Quack-Novels and Democracy
BY OWEN WISTER
And the fox carries the goose. — A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
You can read a man by his habit in friends, they say; they say likewise you can read him by the length of his nose; his walk, his voice, the shape of his mouth, and the back of his head, are also offered as trustworthy indications of him, while there are some who profess him to be revealed through his chirography — let us not attempt to set down the half or the quarter of these ways to read a man; we have gathered during our sojourn upon this bad little planet a thick bundle of recipes for the deciphering of our neighbor. Doubtless there is virtue in many of these, possibly virtue in most. I know the vice-president of a bank whose value to his institution is his quick knack of knowing at sight when — and when not — to accommodate strangers with a loan. Roughly, certain signs work. They may be called peep-holes, through which we see some piece, at least, of the inward creature. The tramp seldom looks like the laborer honestly out of employment. We begin life wearing the appearance presented to us by our propagators, but we finish it looking much like ourselves. My classmates and I will never see fifty again. Now I would not follow our American bent to treat every generalization as one hundred per cent true,— seventy-five per cent of truth in anything being rich ore; to look at a classmate, I could not tell you whether it was chiefly in electricor in steam-railroad securities that he dealt; but on the whole, all we of fifty are pretty legibly graven upon our surfaces. So is our country — and any country that is full grown.
The United States will never see fifty again; nor a hundred. We are full grown. The unsettled or new-settled spots on our map have nothing to do with this. Four wars and three presidents assassinated make a considerable past, without mentioning anything else. We no longer wear the appearance of our propagator, the old world; we are plainly graven with the marks of our own life, social, intellectual, and political. The aspect of our towns, the contents of our newspapers, the quantity and quality of our laws, the size of our bank account, — here are signs to read us by. Millions do we lavish upon university buildings, but pay generally starvation wages to professors; so that our halls of learning resemble mostly very large shells with rather small fish inside them. Our two chief native religious inventions, the Mormon Church and Christian Science, each resting upon its direct supernatural revelation, each gaining in power, both better organized than our navy, our army, our finance, or any part of our government except the spoils system, and both signally opulent, here are more signs to read us by; and even this handful picked at random would suffice to keep a new de Tocqueville busy for some time. From the host remaining, I have selected the Quack-Novel, because Mr. Edward Garnett, a well-known English critic, has recently compared American with English fiction.
The quack-novel is a thing which looks like a book, and which is compounded, advertised, and marketed in precisely the same fashion as Castoria, Wine of Cardui, Alcola, Mrs. Summers’s free-to-you-my-sister Harmless Headache Remedy, Viavi Tablettes, and other patent medicines, harmful and harmless. As the patent medicine is made of perfectly well-known drugs, so the quack-novel of course contains perfectly familiar elements; and like the medicine, it comes wrapped in superlative testimonials from those who say they have swallowed it to their advantage. Instead of, ‘After twenty years of bed-ridden agony, one bottle of your Fosforoso cured every ache and completely restored my manhood,’ we have, ‘The secret of his power is the same God-given secret that inspired Shakespeare and upheld Dickens.’ This, from the Philadelphia Sunday Dispatch, accompanies a quack-novel by Mr. Harold Bell Wright, of whom the Oregon Journal, Portland, remarks, ‘It is this almost clairvoyant power of reading the human soul that has made Mr. Wright’s books among the most remarkable works of the present age.’ Similar to that aroma of piety and charity which accompanies the quack-medicines, an equally perceptible odor of sanctity is wafted to us with Mr. Wright; and just as imitators will make their boxes and bottles to resemble those of an already successful trade article, so are Mr. Wright’s volumes ingeniously given that red cloth and gold lettering which we have come to associate with the bindings of Mr. Winston Churchill’s very popular and agreeable novels. Lastly — like the quack-medicine — the quack-novel is (mostly) harmful; not always because it is poisonous (though this occurs), but because it pretends to be literature and is taken for literature by the millions who swallow it year after year as their chief mental nourishment, and whose brains it saps and dilutes. In short, both these shams — the book and the medicine — win and bamboozle their public through methods almost identical. The reasons why Americans are so fond of bamboozle, generally preferring sham to reality, are plain when you turn them over, and I shall come to this later by looking at the quacknovel. It is certainly a good little window through which to stare at the intelligence, the civilization, the prejudices, and the taste of our American hordes, who have learned to read without profit to themselves but with such huge profit to quack-novelists and publishers. As we are assured that more than/irc million copies of Mr. Wright’s books have been sold, he alone becomes so conspicuous a pane of glass in the window, that we must presently stare somewhat attentively through him.
But Mr. Edward Garnett comes first, with his article in the Atlantic Monthly for December, 1914, comparing American with English fiction. Mr. Garnett concerned himself a little with our quacks, but more with our regular practitioners— and with no gloves upon his words he dealt our fiction some good blows, true and heavy, straight from the shoulder. The Atlantic Monthly, precipitately, in a footnote, wrapped round these words a pair of its own softest mittens; but down went American fiction all the same, knocked out, its nose incarnadined. — I confess to some apprehension upon encountering at the outset of Mr. Garnett’s paper, ‘ the subfusk, swollen cataract,’ just after I had metand safely passed ‘ the raging spate’: spate and I were acquainted — but subfush ? And it was so sudden, pressing on the heels of spate. Happily I was at no distance from a dictionary. Well, subfusk is eminently respectable; not to know subfusk argues myself unknown, and without any more dictionary I followed Mr. Garnett to the end, inspired and regaled by his smeddum. (I did n’t really know that last one until I went questing for subf usk.)
What concerns Mr. Garnett, is the general character and the present collapse of our fiction. ‘The reader,’ say the editors of the Atlantic in their disclaiming footnote, ‘must understand that his critical estimates are entirely his own.’ There you have the mittens. Here are some of Mr. Garnett’s blows: ‘The strange timidity (I had almost written cowardice) of the American publishers’; ‘the failure of American criticism’; ‘Americans always seem nervously anxious to appear orthodox ’; ‘the modern American novelist seems to delight in the presentation of “ standardized” morals, manners, and emotions’; ‘the conspiracy of silence in the American novel concerning the sexual passion’; ‘these stories are destined for the rubbish heap.’ Besides ‘standardization’ and ‘exaggeration,’ Mr. Garnett criticizes the inveterate happy ending, the frequent pulpit manner, the unrealism of our novels and tales, quoting instances from Mr. Winston Churchill and Mr. James Lane Allen; in short, he finds even our regular practitioners too often speaking, not with the voice of the true artist, but with the twang of the revivalist. This he contrasts with the happier day of Miss Sarah Orne Jewett, Mrs. Mary Wilkins Freeman, Miss Murfree, Miss Grace King, Frank R. Stockton, Joel Chandler Harris, Stephen Crane, Frank Norris, O. Henry, — all regular practitioners, worthy of Mr. Howells’s notice and blessing. Like Mr. Howells, he too finds our most skillful authors to be women, and he places Anne Douglas Sedgwick and Mrs, Wharton at the top.
It is the books that concern Mr. Garnett; it is their readers that concern me. Publishers cowardly; critics worthless; novelists false; why? Because it is successful to be so. But why should it be successful? The answer leads us straight back to the American people, to our garbled version of democracy, and must accordingly wait till we are finished with the quack-novel.
Mr. Garnett’s list of honored names seems incomplete to me. I think he should have added T. B. Aldrich, H. C. Bunner, and Herman K. Viele, delicate and charming artists; and Dr. Weir Mitchell, if never quite the master of fiction that he was of verse, wrote one compact, and tragic novel, Constance Trescott, which will withstand severe critical tests. I must praise some living, too, that Mr. Garnett did not name; it is very pleasant to praise the living, even though I risk becoming too indicular. — Subfusk evidently exercises upon me a contagious influence; but I leave indicular, an excellent pretty word, that the reader’s vocabulary may be enlarged. — Margaret Deland with her Old Chester Tales; William Allen White with his A Certain Rich Man ; Judge Robert Grant with his Unleavened Bread, containing the most salient American heroine that I know; Mary Stanbury Watts, with her delightful Nathan Burke, and her literary Ohio farming growing more and more intensive; Meredith Nicholson, who drives weariness out of the unplayful air, — none of these writers is democratizing literature; it is hardly their work which causes Mr. Garnett to say, ‘It is only in America that the commercial instinct seems to have succeeded in erecting the mediocrity of the ordinary man, in matters artistic, into an imperative standard of tastelessness/ — though none of them would claim for themselves the craftsmanship possessed by Mrs. Wharton alone among us. But alas! also none of them is beginning a career; and when an English novelist, who was lately in this country, asked four of us sitting at lunch, Who were the ‘ young ones ’ ? — we had to be silent. I thought of Queed. If V.V.’s Eyes had n’t followed it, I should have spoken, I think, of some promise there, in spite of the hero’s preposterous change of nature. But had The Harbor, by Ernest Poole, been published then, I should certainly have praised that highly to our English guest. Nothing since MacTeague has augured so hopefully. The author has not only painted with honesty and careful skill a large, complex, and sometimes beautiful background: he has thrown against it one (if not two) well-realized and tragic figures, — the hero’s father and ‘J.K.’ This genuine piece of American fiction fills me with wishes to give its author advice: how old I am getting!
And now we leave the oasis and enter the desert. It is very interesting and very significant to recall that precisely at the beginning of the epoch when our notorious ‘high finance’ set in to water, swell, and burst good sound properties, such as the New Haven and the Rock Island, the literary equivalent of this should have appeared. Frenzied fiction began to manufacture the quack-novel at the same time that the Moores, Reids, Mellens, and the rest were conceiving their work. Both phenomena, high finance and frenzied fiction, proceeded from the same national state of mind. The state of mind of the hundreds of thousands who bought the securities, or read the novels, is perfectly to be seen in the anecdote of the young person who one day in 1911 entered the Philadelphia Library and asked for ‘something good.’—Had she read Tono Bungay?— No, she had n’t. — It was put into her hand with commendation. She sought its title-page, and instantly thrust back the volume with almost a scream of reproach. ‘ Why, that’s two years old! That ain’t fresh!’ So they gave her a perfectly fresh one, just laid that day by Mr. Robert W. Chambers.
Mr. Chambers was once a regular practitioner; but he has come to this: —
‘“Do you love me?”
“‘You have no fear of me now?”
‘“No. But don’t kiss me — yet,” she whispered, tightening his arm round her.
‘He laughed softly. “Your Royal Shyness is so wonderful — so wonderful — so adorable! When may I kiss you?”
“When we are alone.”
‘ “ Will you respond when we are alone? ” ’
Here is another love-duet, taken at random from another novel: —
‘ “ Be less a comrade, more a sweetheart.”
‘ “ Familiar?”
‘ My heart was beating fast. “Familiar to my arms. I love you.”
“‘I — do not permit myself to desire your arms. Can I help saying so — if you ask me?”
‘ “ When I love you so —”
‘“No. Why are you, after all, like other men, when I once hoped — ” ’
Mr. Chambers produces many inosculating (there goes subfusk again!) couples just like this, and his prose is pervaded with an odor of musk evidently agreeable to his large audience. That such incense and invocations to Eros and Venus should be thus widely welcomed, perhaps runs a little counter to Mr. Garnett’s reproach as to our ‘conspiracy of silence concerning the sexual passion.’ At any rate I shall return to this point. The point here is the readers, these many thousands of readers, who never tire of luxury made visible in words, huge houses, huge fortunes, furs, orchids, and wine, and gold, and proud purple passion, — in fact, all things which present life in the costume and scenery of those grand operas where jewels of glass and beakers of pasteboard gleam and flash, while the band throbs with festal strains. Ouida constantly produced this operatic trick from her box, but the trick could not plausibly be performed on our scene until the palaces of Newport and Fifth Avenue were built and the fortunes of high finance had begun to be muckraked; not until this happened could the sensuous prevail over the melodramatic (as it increasingly does in our quack-novels just now) with any chance of success among the ever-present credulous thousands who stand ceaselessly ready to purchase the sham.
The muckrakers (what a good title for a novel! but it should be written by a regular practitioner, — Mr. Robert Herrick or Judge Grant or Airs. Wharton), the muckrakers made our quacks happy and busy. Americans during forty years had bowed down to wealth; now wealth (with itself a good deal to thank for its fall) was in the popular pillory. Thus a somewhat different audience from that of Air. Chambers was created, ready to pay handsomely, not only for musk, but also to see the wicked millionaire in his true light.
In The Metropolis Air. Upton Sinclair, with a righteousness and an outraged sense of morality of which he could not speak too highly, showed the wicked millionaire in his true light, eating lunch:—
‘ It began with ice-cream, moulded into fancy shapes and then buried in white of egg and baked brown. Then there was a turtle soup, thick and green and greasy; and then — horror of horrors— a great steaming plum-pudding . . . there appeared cold asparagus. . . . Then . . . there came quail . . . then half a grape-fruit set in a block of ice and filled with wine; and then little squab ducklings . . . and an artichoke; and then a cafe parfait, and then — as if to crown the audacity — huge thick slices of roast beef . . . And between all the courses . . . sherry and port, champagne and claret and liqueur.’
The wicked millionaire not only lunched like this, it was the rule of his whole abandoned life; and Mr. Sinclair showed him in his true light at every step. Chaste simplicity flutters round this flame, but its moth-wings are obliged to escape burning, for if they did n’t the public would n’t buy the book. The increase of such novels (and they have spread like a contagion) is an indication of our great prosperity. The kitchen used to be their habitat, and their price insignificant. But the kitchen is become so prosperous that it has come upstairs to sit in the parlor, bringing its novels with it. These now cost a dollar and a half, and are externally much decorated; it is their insides that remain unchanged.
Harmoniously in key with these quack-novels, went the rag-time legislation that accompanied the popular change of mind all over the country. The corporations had brought it on themselves, no doubt; in consequence, the popular breath had suddenly veered, and was blowing against all money; all money was now tainted; all poor men were now honest. This not only produced one of those oscillations in politics which make ours a government by pendulum: it made quack-fiction easy to write — and ruinously profitable. Every reader felt himself to be a crusader against the millionaire, felt all the comfortable sensations, without any of the exertions, of being virtuous. Our middle classes have always liked to feel virtuous, provided it cost them no effort. What made The House of Mirth a ‘best seller’ was not at all that Mrs. Wharton’s portraits of the rich were brilliantly painted, but that they did not happen to be flattering; the daubs of Mr. Sinclair and the bill-posters of Mr. Chambers, are quite as satisfactory to that audience.
Ruinously profitable, indeed, has been the quack-novel to Mr. Chambers and other genuine talents, who might have been able to say, with the nice felicity of Horace, or more vernacularly:
Spiritum Graiae tenuem Camenae
Parca non mendax dedit, et malignum
‘ And what are you going to say about Mr. Rex Beach?’ inquired a friend to whom I had confided many of the above opinions. It is most fortunate that he should have asked this question: others, too, might have confused the ‘best seller’ with what I mean by the quacknovel. Mr. Beach’s stories (those that I have read) are by no means sham. His Alaskan material is first-rate, and he knows it at first hand. His plots are rough and athletic, and his characters belong to them. His material is much the same as that from which Mr. Jack London so admirably and poetically fashioned The Call of the Wild. But the clay is never the point, it is always the potter; remove Stevenson from TheWrecker or Dickens from Oliver Twist, and a dime novel remains; and I must repeat that in all novels, as in all medicines, the elements are perforce the same, — drugs in the one, nature and human nature in the other, — and the quackness depends wholly upon how they are compounded and exploited. It is the readers, not the novels, I am looking at; my quotations are purely in order to help us get at the readers; and I leave criticism to our native critics who find Mr. Wright like Dickens and Shakespeare.
Lest certain genteel critics who think they practice more discrimination than this, feel slighted, it may be well to explain here why they have so little influence. It was amusing to notice how some of them — the Chicago Dial, for instance — hastened to asseverate that they had always known what Mr. Garnett said, that they had always said so themselves. So they had. They do, tepidly, discriminate; they do, after the fact, perceive and praise merit. They all — the New York Times, the New York Sun, the Boston Evening Transcript, the New York Evening Post (very typical, this last one), with others of less note — stand ever ready to be the first to hail a perfectly well established artist.
Mr. Garnett speaks of ‘the failure of American criticism to recognize that by virtue of thirty little masterpieces in the short story, Miss Jewett ranks with the leading European masters, and its grudging, inadequate recognition of the most original genius . . . Mr. Stephen Crane.’ He adds later, ‘I do not know whether the lateO. Henry’s marvelous powers of language, gayety, creative fecundity, and imaginative power in handling a situation have yet received their due in America.’ They will receive it now: Europe has recognized them; the danger is over; Provincialism can safely lift its echo. A true American artistalways receivesthe support of our genteel critics after he no longer needs it.
When an Apache chief saw his first locomotive, he expressed no surprise. Another took the city of Washington in like way. The savage s fear of showing astonishment proceeds from the same source as the provincial critic s caution in praise: you may give yourself away. It is this American provincial fear in our genteel critics to speak out heartily, unmistakably, in praise of a newcomer, which causes our writers of ‘rare imaginative gift’ to seem to Mr. Garnett ‘so isolated, so hemmed in, and cut off from assistance of cultivated minds.’ Until the subsidized press is broken to pieces, and the genteel critic gathers heart, not only to brand the bad but to report and celebrate the good, I doubt if there will exist any word too contemptuous for American criticism.
The American press plays so large a part in maintaining the mediocrity of American fiction, and in palming off both quack-novels and quack-medicines upon the credulous, that to find Mr. William Randolph Hearst’s advertising power behind nostrums like Eckman’s Alterative and novels like those of Mr. Chambers in the Cosmopolitan, affords our demonstration a very pretty case. The Cosmopolitan is a good instance of our frenzied editing: ‘Everlastingly alive — alive to the big, everyday problems that hit your home and hit it hard . . . and alive . . . everlastingly alive — to get for you “ the best — and only the best — at any price ” for every issue; that is the reason why Cosmopolitan jumps ahead every month and is bound to break even its own high record as America’s Greatest Magazine.’
Into such company is Mr. Chambers fallen — along with Mr. Gouverneur Morris, who, like Mr. Chambers, has talent and began well, and whose story All the Evidence is introduced by the following blast: —
‘Have you ever read Poe’s weird “Tales”? We don’t think they have anything on this story. . . . It is a Poe plot done with Morris skill.’
Well, that is a matter of opinion. Here are matters of fact: the scene of All the Evidence is laid at Aiken. The hero is the son of a gorilla. The denouement turns on the hero’s attentions to a young woman. About 1857 a story was written called Lokis. The hero was the son of a bear. The scene is laid in Russia. The denouement turns most decidedly on the hero’s attentions to a young woman. Poe was not the author. Did changing the map and the mammal in this tale free it from moral copyright? At any rate, it was quite safe for the Cosmopolitan to assume its readers’ ignorance of Prosper Merimee.
In January, seventy-two years ago, a very famous novel began to appear. Some chapters of this are laid in America, whither two of the characters voyage from England; and as they arrive at the wharf, the voice of the New Country, speaking through a newsboy, hails them thus: —
‘Here’s the Sewer! Here’s the New York Sewer l Here’s some of the twelfth thousand of to-day’s Sewer, with the best account of the markets, and all the shipping news, and four whole columns of country correspondence, and a full account of the ball at Mrs. White’s last night, where all the beauty and fashion of New York was assembled; with the Sewer’s own particulars of the private lives of all the ladies that was there! Here’s the Sewer! Here’s some of the twelfth thousand of the New York Sewer/ Here’s the Sewer s exposure of the Wall Street Gang, and the Sewer’s exposure of the W ashington Gang, and the Sewer’s exclusive account of a flagrant act of dishonesty committed by the Secretary of State when he was eight years old; now communicated, at a great expense, by his own nurse. Here’s the Sewer! Here’s the New York Sewer, in its twelfth thousand, with a whole column of New Yorkers to be shown up, and all their names printed! ’
Seventy-two years ago! Long before Mr. Hearst was born.
Let us turn from Charles Dickens to Mr. Harold Bell Wright, whom, as we haveseen,the Philadelphia Sunday Dispatch places with Dickens and Shakespeare. Once again my friend asked me a fortunate question: ‘Do these writers know they are writing quacknovels?’ To which I answered sententiously, ‘Some arc born quacks, some achieve quackery, and some have quackery thrust upon them. But how often must I remind you that it is the minds and morals of the readers, the five million, the democracy, and not the writers, that I am looking at through this peep-hole?’
Mr. Wright has written six or seven stories, all wafted toward the possible purchaser amid that perfume of piety which I have said is so frequently exhaled from the advertisements of the quack-medicines: ‘A story of practical Christianity’; ‘An Inspiration to the Simple Life’; ‘The Ministry of Daily Life’; ‘The Ministry of Capital’; ‘An Exaltation of Life and Love’; ‘The Ministry of Art and Letters,’ — all phrases constructed, you observe, to ‘catch’ the popular mood which muckraking and the activities of the revivalist have recently engendered. That Printer of Udell’s (the practical Christianity story) ‘ has not a peer in English fiction,’ says the Providence Telegram. The Uncrowned King ‘is the greatest story since Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progresssays the Grand Rapids Herald. But we must look more closely at Mr. Wright.
‘ . . . the City Sometime, too, is a Royal City, the home of Lookingahead, who rules over the Land of Yettocome. . . . For a long happy, happy time Really-Is and Seemsto-Be remained in the City Sometime. . . . And SeemstoBe, taking heart at the gentleness of Really-Is, answered . . . Twins we are . . . of the royal family Everyone. Therefore let us rule together the Land of Allthetime.’
That is Mr. Wright’s Bunyan manner, in The Uncrowned King. The following is from Their Yesterdays; —
‘Children and Life are one. They are the product, the producers, and the preservers of Life. They exalt Life. They interpret Life. Without them Life has no meaning. The child is no more the possession of its parents than the parents are the property of the child. Children are the just creditors of the human race. Mankind owes them everything. They owe mankind nothing. A baby has no debts.’
‘Is the life of a man, he asked himself, more mysterious than the life of a horse? Can science — blind, pretentious, childish science — explain the life of a dog with less uncertainty than it can explain the life of a man? Or can the scientist make a laboratory sparrow more easily than he can produce a laboratory man? . . . He became very proud with a humble pride.’
These novels are written in a prose style appropriate to them, which, were it better, might not appeal to the five million who buy Mr. Wright’s books.
‘He does n’t like for any one to see the picture’; ‘I like for people to hear my music’; ‘I would be very glad for such an engagement’; ‘Neither Mr. King nor Mr. Lagrange are at home’; ‘ You certainly look to be very much at home’; ‘And do you really like for me to make music for you’; ‘To not like the mob is the thing’; — these sentences are from dialogues in Mr. Wright’s latest book, The Eyes of the World.
The Eyes of the World gathers into its four hundred and sixty-four pages all the elements, I think, of the quacknovel; one element appearing rather more conspicuously than in any of Mr. Wright’s preceding stories. This is the sensuous suggestion, the carnal preoccupation, the somewhat frequent (but scrupulously pious) reference to illicit sexual relations. The plot concerns eight or nine principal characters, and these are all (except one) taken, without a change in so much as a hair of their heads, from the closet where melodrama keeps its most battered and shop-worn puppets.
The hero. He is twenty-two; he has lived three years in Europe to study painting, and at this tender age is already ‘thorough master of his craft.’ He paints a portrait which betrays ‘ in every detail — in every mark of the brush — the thoughtful painstaking care —the thorough knowledge and highly trained skill of an artist who was, at least, master of his own technic.’ But Europe in other respects has left him as inexperienced as a new-laid egg. Of course his appearance is superb. ‘In the full flush of his young manhood’s vigor . . . the determined chin and the well-squared jaw . . . his dress was that of a gentleman of culture and social position. His very bearing evidenced that he had never been without means to gratify the legitimate tastes of a cultivated and refined intelligence. . . . Tall, with an athletic trimness of limb, a good breadth of shoulder, and a fine head poised with that natural, unconscious pride of the well-bred — he kept his feet on the unsteady platform of the car with that easy grace which marks only well-conditioned muscles, and is rarely seen save in those whose lives are sanely clean.’
The millionaire. . . . ‘ though certainly not old in years . . . aged by dissipation and disease. The gross, sensual mouth with its loose-hanging lips; the blotched and clammy skin; the pale watery eyes with their inflamed rims and flabby pouches; the sunken chest, skinny neck and limbs; and the thin rasping voice — all cried aloud the shame of a misspent life.’ Upon this frightful example of affluence, Mr. Wright lavishes many descriptive paragraphs. ‘The creature’s wasted, skeleton-like limbs were clothed grotesquely in conventional evening dress.’ He had a bad cough, too, which ‘ shook him —gasping and choking — almost into unconsciousness. The ready attendant held out a glass of whiskey, and he clutched the goblet with skinny hands.’ Of course they bring him to dinner in a wheel-chair; but after Mr. Wright’s descriptions, one feels that the only safe conveyance for him would be a spongebag or a pillow-case.
Millionaire’s shocking wife. * She was a woman of evident rank and distinction in that world where rank and distinction are determined wholly by dollars and by such social position as dollars can buy. She was beautiful; but with that carefully studied, wholly selfconscious— one is tempted to say professional— beauty of her kind. Her full, rounded, splendidly developed body was gowned to accentuate the alluring curves of her sex. With such skill was this deliberate appeal to the physical hidden under a cloak of a pretending modesty that its charm was the more effectively revealed.’ Of course she hisses taunts at her husband. She says, ‘Look at me; am I to waste all this upon you? You tell me that you have had your money’s worth. — Are you so chaste that you dare cast a stone at me? . . . Be satisfied that the world does not see your shame.’
The heroine. ‘A moment later, the mountain girl, dressed in simple white, with no jewel or ornament other than a rose in her soft brown hair, stood before that company. ... As she stood there in the modest naturalness of her winsome beauty — innocent and pure as the flowers that formed the screen behind her. . . . She seemed, as indeed she was, a spirit from another world.’ This mountain girl can dance all alone among the trees, too, like the butterflies; and she can catch trout; and she can also play the violin so remarkably that the sound of it arrests the spotless hero (before he has ever even seen her) from yielding to the infamous advances of the shocking wife of the depraved millionaire.
The villain. ‘James Rutlidge, his heavy features flushed with drink, was gazing at the girl with a look that betrayed his sensual passion.’ He is also an art critic; and while he continues to gaze, the dauntless exposure of highlife goes on. The depraved millionaire, surrounded by whiskey, diamonds, bare shoulders, celebrities, and everything else of the most deeply objectionable nature, tries to stand up once more, but falls ‘... in a ghastly heap of diseased flesh and fine raiment.’ This scene closely resembles the banquet scene in A Parisian Romance.
The remaining character of importance plays the part of Greek chorus and mentor to the hero. He has an intelligent dog, and he is very bitter. He says, ‘ X have no friends — only admirers.’ And also, ‘ I am a scrawny, humpbacked, crooked-faced scarecrow of a man.’ He begs the hero to be warned by his dreadful example. He is a novelist, ‘ easily the most famous of his day.’ But this evidently gives him no joy at all, for he says, ‘ I am as ugly and misshapen in spirit as in body ... I haunt the intellectual slaughter-pens. ... I glean the stinking materials for my stories from the sewers. . . .For the dollars they pay, I furnish my readers with those thrills that public decency forbids them to experience at first hand. I am a procurer. . . . My books breed moral pestilence. ... I am an instigator of degrading immorality and unmentionable crimes. . . . No, young man, I don’t work.’ Later, he says to the mountain girl, ‘I don’t like people to read my books,’ — which is very confusing after his telling the hero he writes them for the dollars they pay; and if any one will give the name and address of this novelist, I will bless him with my latest breath.
In addition to the above characters, there is the heroine’s guardian angel, with one side of her face dreadfully disfigured by a mysterious past. Her real name is Rosa Dartle, but she has another one here. There is the usual villain’s accomplice; he turns out in the very nick of time (for oh, mercy! The villain had nearly enmeshed the mountain girl) to have the usual kind, honest heart. And there is one nature’snobleman with a pet horse.
These are the characters; would you hear the plot?
Scene, death-bed of hero’s aristocratic mother. Enter hero, fresh from Europe and painting. Awful disclosure by mother. Father did something queer. Ha, mystery! My boy, promise me! Oh yes, mother. Scene, Golden State Limited, west of Yuma. Chaste painter in same car with dangerous wife of wicked millionaire and other infectious persons. Limited reaches Redlands Junction realistically, and passengers change for Redlands just as they do in real life on the Southern Pacific. Ha, accuracy! Scene, Redlands. Famous novelist warns chaste painter. Boy, I knew your angel mother. Be true to your art. Oh, God, once I, too, was good. Is that so? Then live with me in my studio and sweet gyarden. Scene, sweet garden and simple life. Novelist, intelligent dog, and chaste painter. Ha, a handkerchief marked ‘S.’ How came it here? But stay, what is yon beauteous music? Intelligent dog knows. Scene, studio. Chaste painter paints dangerous wife. Unhand me, Mrs. Potiphar. Scene, Rosa Dartle. Scene, Mrs. Potiphar and simple mountain maid. Ha, jealousy! Mrs. Potiphar flatteringly painted by Joseph as Quaker maiden. Disgust of novelist. Boy, your picture’s a lie! You’ve painted her pure! Faugh! Honest Joseph returns large check for dishonest portrait. Scene, more simple life. Mountains, streams, butterflies, flowers, trout, mountain maid, Joseph, nature’s-nobleman, and pet horse. Villain’s eye on mountain maid. Accomplice procured. Can you heliograph? Scene, studio. Joseph paints mountain maid. Also new and true picture of the unsuspecting Mrs. Potiphar as she really and horribly is. (So like a gentleman to do this.) Scene, unsimple life. Banquet from Parisian Romance, collapse of Baron Chevrial. Scene, studio. Jealous Mrs. Potiphar and mountain maid. Girl! You here! In a young man’s room alone! The world will talk! Oh, mercy, I did n’t think of that. Disappearance of mountain maid. Departure of Mrs. Potiphar east. Joseph scouring mountains. Oh, where is my little girl? Villain pursues. Nature’snobleman to the rescue. Where have they hid her? Ha, heliograph. Ha, footprints. Ha, hot scent. Scene, mountain hut. Abducted mountain maid in custody of accomplice, but he has a heart. Enter villain. Ha, now you’re mine. Oh, mercy. Somebody coming. Enter Joseph. Joseph and villain struggle frightfully at edge of precipice. Kind-hearted accomplice shoots villain. Vice punished, virtue triumphant, quick! play some soft music! Here you are: ‘The winged emblems of innocence and purity flitted away over the willow wall. The girl, with bright eyes and smiling lips — half laughing, half serious — looked toward her mate. He held out his arms and she went to him.’ (Of course they ’ve been married, it’s perfectly right, and they’re in a canyon, having come to the mountains for their honeymoon, immediately after the ceremony.)
Such is the typical quack-novel: stale, distorted, a sham, a puddle of words — and Democracy’s laureate literature. I have taken you wading through this mess of mildewed pap, because unless you touched it, smelt it, tasted it yourselves, how could you know the flavor that five millions find so delicious, and hence the standard of intelligence of these five millions?
We have seen already why money is a target at present so thickly shot at by quack-novelists: they assail money in hopes to fill their own pockets with it. This is one of those paradoxes so frequent in our reputedly humorous nation. We can next easily see why sexual passion has lately come into our fiction. It began in versions of French plays; it found an audience ready, — partly foreign but also native, — and from the stage it spread to books. Of the two spirits that have ruled in English literature, which we may symbolically christen Raleigh and Cromwell, it was Cromwell who colonized and conquered American literature, forbidding references to the flesh, and leaving our writers only the world and the devil. The Scarlet Letter stands out as an exception; but even in the hands of our greatest genius, how much is left out that Balzac — or Tourgenieff—or a dozen great European authors — would have put in! But I will tell Mr. Garnett that, since we could at no time so far, under the sway of Cromwell, have been permitted the wholesome frankness of Fielding (which I hope we shall come to allow — within the limits of a discreeter taste), I prefer, on the whole, our ‘conspiracy of silence’ to the rancid and self-conscious sentimentalism in that most crooked book of Mr. Galsworthy’s, The Dark Flower; that is exactly what we should have had here — indeed we have had it in Mr. Herrick’s Together, Unless you can deal with this subject as naturally as Fielding dealt with it, best keep away.
That the quack-novel is unskillful, yet flourishes and prevails, would scarce be worth any comment, were not the great bulk of our fiction so craftless as to raise in Mr. Garnett the suspicion that ‘ the American mind is hostile to the artist in literature’; and on this point he touches more than once. The suspicion is quite correct. But the American mind has been warped by a much broader hostility than this: not merely trained writing, but every form of equipped superiority, was mistrusted and disliked during our first hundred years of national life. That sneer contained in the phrase ‘ the gentleman in politics,’ is but one of the many straws that show which way the wind blew. But why did it blow that way? The explanation (as Mr. Herbert Croly has shown) lies in the pioneer democrat; the germ of our pervading amateurishness is here. The pioneer democrat had the backwoods and the Indian to fight. He won. He thought very well of himself in consequence. So his brains went raw. Raw, ready brains sufficed for his needs and emergencies. With an axe, and a gun, and a vote, and some patent medicine, he survived. This greatly reinforced his initial generalization that ‘one man was as good as another.’ Now suppose, instead of the backwoods and the Indian, that the pioneer democrat had had Napoleon, or Wellington, with some trained armies against him? Suppose some educated and civilized races had been his competitors? France, England, Germany, had each other to fight with, while the pioneer democrat was opposed by merely a virgin wilderness. New Orleans and Lundy’s Lane do not outbalance our forlorn humiliation of 1812. Lack of education all hangs together — whether in soldiers, statesmen, doctors, or novelists. The pioneer democrat’s easy success made him sure that quacks of whatever sort were just as good as anybody else. From this it was but a step to preferring them — and Europe was then too distant and too busy to disabuse him of this illusion.
Very despotic was this son of liberty in his backwoods. His notion of liberty was, that everybody was free to agree with him. This, also, is due to Cromwell; dissent forbids dissent from itself; and hence we have inherited the prevailing conception that freedom means your liberty to deprive your neighbor of his. Hence also do we have the ‘ standardized’ novel; while our illusion about quacks, our preference for them, is still to be seen alike in Mr. Bryan’s statesmanship and Mr. Harold Bell Wright’s five million readers. The marvel is not that we have so few regular practitioners, but that we should have produced any men of great and genuine distinction at all, a Lincoln and a Hawthorne, for instance; that is the marvel — and the hope!
I doubt if the present hour furnishes any happier symbols than we have in Mr. Bryan and Mr. Wright for those American characteristics that I am trying to look at through the quack-novel; and this brings me at once to the great cause of the whole matter, the whole American phenomenon, a cause which underlies all others that I have touched upon or brushed aside. Mr. Garnett, being occupied merely with the books and not with their readers, grazes the point when he says, ‘It would be as ridiculous to charge the great American people with being less honest with themselves than are those of other nations, as it would be to doubt that in “ the land of freedom,” there is less inner freedom than elsewhereHis quotation-marks seem a trifle heavy in a context so obvious; but the insular hand is not invariably light. The italics are my own: Mr. Garnett knows quite well he has hit the truth. Why is it true?
Before we came into the world, during the period of our national gestation, the times were filled with phrases. Phrase-makers in Europe were coining that political currency which phrasemongers borrowed and passed among us here. That t he chief coin was counterfeit did not hinder it from being of great value: mankind has invariably drawn inspiration from the not-true, and the not-true is probably essential to the welfare of all fruitful beliefs. Kings are supported by ‘divine right.’ Divine sanction for Mormonism was dug out of a hill in central New York by Joseph Smith, under the guidance of an angel. All the world over, the most contradictory creeds have called each other heresies, while claiming divine right for themselves; and to this, democracy is no exception. Therefore it is of little significance that ‘the natural rights of man’ is a phrase which denotes nothing constant or absolute (such as twice two is four), or denotes indeed anything whatever, except what any generation reads into it. A ‘right’ does not descend all complete from the sky, any more than Minerva sprang in full armor from the forehead of Jove; a ‘right’ is merely what everybody agrees to let anybody be, or do, or possess. In Egypt kings could marry their sisters; in a prohibition state a man cannot drink what he likes. But we were born at a season of phrase-making, and our birthday was celebrated by a phrase: Allmen are created equal. Into the Declaration of Independence Jefferson, a slave-holder, wrote this, and all the signers signed it; and thus phrases and falsehood were made bone of our bone and flesh of our flesh. They essayed to reconcile equality and slavery by explaining that Negroes were not exactly men; but as this was awkward for Thomas Jefferson and the numerous other white fathers of black slaves, the position was abandoned, and America went forward with her phrase of equality and all her other phrases.
But you cannot continue to swallow a contradiction like slavery and equality for very long, without important results to your mental integrity. You never can substitute rhetoric for reality without important results to your brain —and other results as well. You cannot fight trained armies with rhetoric; and so the English burned Washington. The War of 1812, however, taught nothing to our phrase-mongers in Congress and elsewhere. We continued to be the land of the free’ and to boast about our ‘glorious institutions and destiny.’ We spoke of Europe’s ‘effete despotisms’; we said ‘Uncle Sam had a farm for everybody’; and our public oracles from Jefferson to Bryan have continued to build commonwealths with hot air.
Thus cherishing the equality and slavery lie, and thus nourishing our Optimistic Fallacy with phrases which our easy success in the backwoods seemed to validate, we acquired our instinct to look away from any reality that fell short of squaring with the Optimistic Fallacy, any truth that refused to combine agreeably with it. From all such unpleasant facts, political and social, all facts that grated on the Optimistic Fallacy, we turned our eyes so quickly and so hard, that our national sincerity ended by acquiring a perpetual squint. Slavery was abolished — we know at what cost — but the four years’ struggle of true national conscience, while it exalted a generation for ever, could not undo the work of the sixty or seventy preceding years; the squint went on; it had become chronic.
In great things, as in small, we hid behind phrases; changing the words satisfied us just as well as if we had thereby changed the facts. For instance, ‘first’ and ‘second’ class couldn’t be painted on railroad cars: all passengers, being Americans, were equal; it would be ‘ un-American ’; but paint ‘ Pullman’ on a car, and everybody was satisfied. In like manner we hid behind the word ‘emancipation,’ and looked away from the festering unsolved problem. So it is our habit still to stare crookedly (or not at all) at unpleasant truths, to pull the Optimistic Fallacy over anything uncomfortable, just as we puli the bedclothes over us when we feel cold; so do we still think in terms of sham. The greatest sham we have, the pension of war veterans, is swathed in phrases of the same pious sentimentalism and the same regardlessness of reality that drench the novels of Mr. Harold Bell Wright and the speeches of Mr. William Jennings Bryan.
We can hardly so far be said to have rebutted the presumption raised by History against Democracy, whose wagon has never yet been hitched to a fixed star. But beneath all our sham, something true shines out unexpectedly at times. Behind the clouds, is our star fixed ?
Quite aside from our group of redeeming individuals, whose religion, politics, science, and art keep our heads a little above water, and quite aside also from our general kindness and innocence, and our generosity of both purse and self to those in affliction, we can rise to right-mindedness on great occasions. Under a great shock we see straight. We can perceive the German squint, a far worse one than ours. Our Panama-tolls treaty was not a scrap of paper. If clumsily, still we are struggling for social justice. Our business honesty has improved. Perhaps our star is fixed. Perhaps we shall be cured of our own squint without a surgical operation. Perhaps Uncle Sam may escape the fall he seems to be riding for; but if this is to be the case, we must see straight and keep ourselves right-minded on small as well as great occasions. No ship of state sails far if the pilot forsakes the wheel until the storm is upon him.