The Open Season for American Novelists


THIS is the open season for American novelists. The wardens are in hiding and any one with a blunderbuss and a horn of powder is entitled to all the game he can kill. The trouble was started by Mr. Edward Garnett, a poacher from abroad, who crawled under the fence and wrought great havoc before he was detected. His invasion roused the envy of scores of native hunters, and at their behest all laws for game-protection have been suspended, to satisfy the general craving for slaughter. Mr. Owen Wister on his broncho leads the field, a daring and orgulous knight, sincerely jealous for the good name of the ranges. The fact that I was once beguiled by an alluring title into purchasing one of his books in the fond hope that it would prove to be a gay romance about a lady, only to find that the heroine was, in fact, a cake, did not alter my amiable feelings toward him. I made a pious pilgrimage to the habitat of that cake and invested in numerous replicas for distribution all the way from Colorado to Maine, accompanied by copies of the novel that so adroitly advertised it — a generosity which I have refrained from mentioning to Mr. Wister or his publisher to this day.

Mr. Wister’s personal experiences have touched our oldest and newest civilization, and it is not for me to quarrel with him. Nor should I be saddling Rosinante for a trot over the fearsome range had he not taken a pot shot at poor old Democracy, that venerable offender against the world’s peace and dignity. To drive Mr. Bryan and Mr. Harold Bell Wright into a lonely cleft of the foothills and rope and tie them together seems to me an act of inhumanity unworthy of a good sportsman. As I am unfamiliar with Mr. Wright’s writings, I can only express my admiration for Mr. Wister’s temerity in approaching them close enough to apply the branding iron. Mr. Bryan as the protagonist of Democracy may not be dismissed so easily. To be sure, he has never profited by any ballot of mine, but he has at times laid the lash with a sure hand on shoulders that needed chastisement. However, it is the free and unlimited printing of novels that here concerns us, not the consecration of silver.

Democracy is not so bad as its novels, nor, for that matter, is a constitutional monarchy. The taste of many an American has been debased by English fiction. At the risk of appearing ungracious, I fling in Mr. Garnett s teeth an armful of the writings of Mr. Hall Caine, Mrs. Barclay, and Marie Corelli. The slightest regard for the literary standards of a young and struggling republic should prompt t he mother country to keep her trash at home. It is our most grievous sin t hat we have merely begun to manufacture our own rubbish, in a commendable spirit of building up home industries. In my youth I was prone to indulge in pirated reprints of engrossing tales of adorable curates’ nieces who were lorever playing Cinderella at hunt balls, and breaking all the hearts in the county. They were dukes’ daughters, really, changed in the cradle — Trollope, with a dash of bitters; but their effect, upon me I believe to have been baneful.

A lawyer of my acquaintance used to remark in opening a conference with opposing counsel, ‘I am merely thinking aloud; I don’t want to be bound by anything I say.’ It is a good deal in this spirit that I intrude upon the field of carnage, armed with a white flag and a Red Cross badge. The gentle condescension of foreign critics we shall overlook as lacking in novelty; moreover, Mr. Lowell disposed of that attitude once and for all time.

If anything more serious is to be required in this engagement than these casual shots from my pop-gun I hastily tender my proxy to Mr. Howells. And I am saying (in a husky aside) that if in England, our sadly myopic stepmother, any one now living has served letters with anything like the highminded devotion of Mr. Howells, or with achievements comparable to his for variety, sincerity, and distinction, I shall beglad to pay postage for his name.

We must not call names or make faces, but address ourselves cheerfully to the business at hand. The American novel is, beyond question, in a bad way. Something is radically wrong with it. The short story, too, is under fire. Professor Can by would clap a Russian blouse on it and restore its first fine careless rapture. He makes out a good case and I cheerfully support his cause, with, however, a reservation that we try the effect of American overalls and jumper before committing ourselves fully to Slavic vestments. In my anxiety to be of service to the friends of American fiction, I am willing to act as pall-bearer or officiating minister, or even as corpse, with proper guaranties of decent burial.


Our slow advance in artistic achievement has been defended on the plea that we have no background, no perspective, and that our absorption in business affairs leaves no time for that serene contemplation of life that is essential to the highest attainments. To pass the obvious baccalaureate bromide that we are inheritors of the lore of all the ages, it may be suggested that our deficiencies in the creative arts are overbalanced by the prodigious labors of a people who have lived a great drama in founding and maintaining a new social and political order within little more than a century.

Philosophers intent upon determining the causes of our failure to contribute more importantly to all the arts have suggested that our creative genius has been diverted into commercial and industrial channels; that Bell and Edison have stolen and imprisoned the Promethean fire, while t he altars of the arts have been left cold. Instead of sending mankind whirling over hill and dale at a price within the reach of all, Mr. Henry Ford might have been our enlaureled Thackeray if only he had been born beneath a dancing star instead of under the fiery wheels of Ezekiel’s vision.

The preachiness of our novels, of which crit ics complain with some bitterness, may be reprehensible, but it is not inexplicable. We are a people bred upon the Bible; it was the only book carried into the wilderness; it still has a considerable following among us, and all reports of our depravity are greatly exaggerated. We are inured to much preaching. We tolerate where we do not admire Mr. Bryan, because he is the last of the circuit riders, a tireless assailant of the devil and all his works.

I am aware of growls from the Tory benches as I timidly venture the suggestion — fully conscious of its impiety— that existing cosmopolitan standards may not always with justice be applied to our literary performances. The late Colonel Higginson once supported this position with what, strikes me as an excellent illustration. ‘When,’ he wrote, ‘a vivacious Londoner like Mr. Andrew Lang attempts to deal with that profound imaginative creation, Arthur Dimmesdale in the Scarlet Letter, he fails to comprehend him from an obvious and perhaps natural want of acquaintance with the whole environment of the man. To Mr. Lang he is simply a commonplace clerical Lovelace, a dissenting clergyman caught in a shabby intrigue. But if this clever writer had known the Puritan clergy as we know them, the high priests of a Jewish theocracy, with the whole work of God in a strange land resting on their shoulders, he would have comprehended the awful tragedy in this tortured soul.’

In the same way the singular place held by Emerson in the affections of those of us who are the fortunate inheritors of the Emerson tradition can hardly be appreciated by foreign critics to whom his writings, viewed from Athens, seem curiously formless and his reasoning absurdly tangential. He may not have been a great philosopher, but he was a great philosopher for America. There were English critics who complained bitterly of Mark Twain’s lack of ‘form’; and yet I can imagine that his books might have lost the tang and zest we find in t hem if they had conformed to old-world standards.

On the other hand, the English in which our novels are written must be defended by abler pens than mine. Just why American prose is so slouchy, so lacking in distinction, touches questions that are not for this writing. I shall not even ‘think aloud’ about them! And yet, so great is my anxiety to be of service and to bring as much gayety to the field as possible, that I shall venture one remark: that perhaps the demand on the part of students in our colleges to be taught to write short stories, novels, and dramas — and the demand is insistent — has obscured the importance of mastering a sound prose before any attempt is made to employ it creatively. It certainly cannot be complained that the literary impulse is lacking, when publishers, editors, and theatrical producers are invited to inspect thousands of manuscripts every year. The editor of a popular magazine declares that there are only fifteen American writers who are capable of producing a ‘good’ short story; and this, too, at a time when short fiction is in greater demand than ever before, and at prices that would cause Poe and De Maupassant to turn in their graves. A publisher said recently that he had examined twenty novels from one writer, not one of which he considered worth publishing.

Many, indeed, are called but few are chosen, and some reason must be found for the low level of our fiction where the output, is so great. The fault is not due to unfavorable ‘atmospheric’ conditions, but to timidity on the part of writers in seizing upon the obvious American material. Sidney Lanier remarked of Poe that he was a great poet, but that he did not know enough, — meaning that life in its broad aspects had not moved him. A lack of ‘information,’ of understanding and vision, is, I should say, the fundamental weakness of the American novel. To see life steadily and whole is a large order; and a people prone, as we are, to skim lightheartedly the bright surfaces, are not easily to be persuaded to creep to t he rough edges and peer into the depths. We have not always been anxious to welcome a ‘ physician of the iron age’ capable of reading ‘each wound, each weakness clear,’ and saying ‘ thou ailest here and here!’ It is not ‘competent’ for the artist to plead the unattractiveness of his material at the bar of letters; it is his business to make the best of what he finds ready to his hand. It is because we are attempting to adjust humanity to new ideals of liberty that we offer to ourselves, if not to the rest of the world, a pageant of ceaseless interest and variety.

It may be that we are too much at ease in our Zion for a deeper probing of life than our fiction has found it agreeable to make. And yet we are a far soberer people than we were when Mr. Matthew Arnold complained of our lack of intellectual seriousness. The majority has proved its soundness in a number of instances since he wrote of us. We are less impatient of self-scrutiny. Our newly awakened social consciousness finds expression in many books of real significance, and it is inevitable that our fiction shall reflect this new sobriety.

Unfortunately, since the passing of our New England Olympians, literature as a vocation has had little real dignity among us; we have had singularly few novelists who have settled themselves to the business of writing with any high or serious aim. Hawthorne as a brooding spirit has had no successor among our fictionists. Our work has been chiefly tentative, and all too often the experiments have been made with an eye on the publisher’s barometer. Literary gossip is heavy with reports of record-breaking rapidity of composition. A writer who can dictate is the envy of an adoring circle; another who ‘never revises’ arouses even more poignant despair. The laborious Balzac tearing his proofs to pieces seems only a dingy and pitiable figure. Nobody knows the difference, and what’s a well-turned sentence more or less? I saw recently a newspaper editorial commenting derisively on a novelist’s confession that he was capable of only a thousand words a day, the point being that the average newspaper writer triples this output without fatigue. Newcomers in the field can hardly fail to be impressed by these rumors of novels knocked off in a month or three months, for which astonishing sums have been paid by generous magazine editors. We shall havebetter fiction as soon as ambitious writers realize that novel-writing is a high calling, and that success is to be won only by those who are willing to serve seven and yet other seven years in the hope of winning ‘the crown of time.’

In his happy characterization of Turgenieff and his relation to the younger French school of realists, Mr. James speaks of the ‘great back-garden of his Slav imagination and his Germanic culture, into which the door constantly stood open, and the grandsons of Balzac were not, I think, particularly free to accompany him.’ I am further indebted to Mr. James for certain words uttered by M. Renan of the big Russian: ‘His conscience was not that of an individual to whom nature had been more or less generous; it was in some sort the conscience of a people. Before he was born he had lived for thousands of years; infinite successions of reveries had amassed themselves in the depths of his heart. No man has been as much as he the incarnation of a whole race: generations of ancestors, lost in the sleep of centuries, speechless, came through him to life and utterance.'

I make no apology for thrusting my tin dipper again into Mr. James’s bubbling well for an anecdote of Flaubert, derived from Edmond de Goncourt. Flaubert was missed one fine afternoon in a house where he and De Goncourt were guests, and was found to have undressed and gone to bed to think! I shall not give comfort to the enemy by any admission that our novelists lack culture in the sense that Turgenieff and the great French masters possessed it. A matter of which I may complain with more propriety is their lack of ‘information’ (and I hope this term is sufficiently delicate) touching the tasks and aims of America. We have been deluged with ‘big’ novels that are ‘big’ only in the publishers’ advertisements. New York has lately been the scene of many novels, but the New York adumbrated in most of them is only the metropolis as exposed to the awed gaze of provincial tourists from t he rubber-neck wagon. Sex, lately discovered for exploitation, has resulted only in ‘arrangements’ of garbage in pink and yellow, lightly sprinkled with musk.

As Rosinante stumbles over the range I am disposed to ‘think aloud’ a few suggestions for the benefit of those who may ask where, then, lies the material about which our novelists are so deficient in ‘information.’ (Just then a bullet grazed my ear: this is dangerous ground indeed! O loungers in the scorners’ seat, I who am about to die salute you!) No strong hand has yet been laid upon our industrial life. It has been pecked at and trifled with, but never treated with breadth or fullness. Here we have probably the most striking social contrasts the world has ever seen; racial mixtures of bewildering complexity, the whole flung against, impressive backgrounds and lighted from a thousand angles. Pennsylvania is only slightly ‘spotted’ on the literary map, and yet between Philadelphia and Pittsburg nearly every possible phase and condition of life is represented. Great passions are at work in the fiery aisles of the steel mills that would have kindled Dostoiefsky’s imagination. A pillar of cloud by day and of fire by night marks a limitless field for the earnest fictionist. A Balzac would find innumerable subjects awaiting him in the streets of Wilkesbarre!

At this point I must bemoan the ill luck that has carried so many American fiction writers to foreign shores. If Hawthorne had never seen Italy, but had clung to Salem, I am disposed to think American literature would be the richer. If fate had not carried Mr. Howells to Venice, but had posted him on the Ohio during the mighty struggle of the ’60’s; and if Mr. James had been stationed at Chicago, close to the deep currents of national feeling, what a monumental library of vital fiction they might have given us! If Mrs. Wharton’s splendid gifts had been consecrated to the service of Pittsburg rather than New York and Paris, how much greater might be our debt to her!

Business in itself is not interesting; business as it reacts upon character is immensely interesting. Mineral paint has proved to be an excellent preservative for The Rise of Silas Lapham, which remains our best novel of business. But if paint may be turned to account, why not cotton, wool, and the rest of the trade catalogue, every item with its own distinct genesis? In The Turmoil Mr. Tarkington has staged under a fitting canopy of factory smoke a significant drama of the conflict between idealism and materialism. Surely the novel of business need not be left altogether to purveyors of hectic romances showing the stock exchange hitched to a cabaret.

Turning to our preoccupation with politics, we find another field that is all but fallow. Few novels of any real dignity may be tendered as exhibits in this department, and these are in a sense local, — the comprehensive, the deeply searching, has yet to be done. Mr. Churchill’s Coniston, Mr. Page’s Red Rock, and Mr. Brand Whitlock’s The Thirteenth District are the happiest experiments I recall, though possibly there are others of equal importance. Yet politics is not only a matter of constant discussion in every quarter: through and by politics many thousands solve the problem of existence. Alone of great national capitals Washington has never been made the scene of a novel of distinction. Years ago we had Mrs. Burnett’s Through One Administration, but it failed to establish itself as a classic. George Meredith doubtless would have hated our capital; its statuary would have depressed him; but he would have found much upon which to exercise his ironic powers. The passing of Mr. Bryan was not without a certain dramatic interest; perhaps, when the newspapers have exhausted it, Mrs. Ward, who is skilled in the management of prime ministers, may find it a subject to her liking!

With all our romantic longings it is little short of amazing that we are not more fecund in schemes for romantic drama and fiction. The stage, not to say the market, waits; but the settings are dingy from much use and the characters in threadbare costumes strut forth to speak old familiar lines. Again, there is an old superstition that we are a humorous people, and yet humor is curiously absent from recent fiction. ‘O. Henry’ knew the way to the fountain of laughter, but contented himself with the shorter form; Huckleberry Finn seems destined to stand for some time as our nearest approach to a novel of typical humor. We have had David Harums and Mrs. Wiggses a-plenty, — kindly philosophers, often drawn with skill, — but the results are character sketches, not novels.


It is impossible in a general view of our fiction to dissociate the novel from the short story, which, in a way, has sapped its vitality. An astonishing number of short stories have shown a grasp of the movement, energy, and color of American life, but writers who have succeeded in this field have seemed incapable of longer flights. And the originality possessed by a great number of short-story writers seems to be shared only meagrely by those who experiment with the novel. When Macaulay’s New Zealander or some venturesome Martian ravages the Library of Congress it is in the shortstory division that he will find the surest key to what American life has been. There are few American novels of any period that can tip the scale against the ten best American short stories, chosen for sincerity and workmanship. It would seem that our creative talent is facile and true in miniature studies, but shrinks from an ampler canvas and a broader brush. Mr. Poole’s recent novel, The Harbor, is a striking exception to the rule; Frank Norris’s The Pit and The Octopus continue to command respect from the fact that he had a panoramic sense that led him to exercise his fine talents upon a great and important theme.

We have had, to be sure, many examples of the business and political novel, but practically all of them have been struck from the same die. A ‘big’ politician or a ‘big’ man of business, his daughter, and a lover who brazenly sets himself up to correct the morals of the powerful parent, is a popular device. Young love must suffer, but it must not meet with frustration. In these experiments (if anything so rigidly prescribed may be said to contain any element of experiment) a little realism is sweetened with much romance. In the same way the quasi-historical novel for years followed a stereotyped formula: the lover was preferably a Northern spy within the Southern lines; the heroine, a daughter of the traditional aristocratic Southern family. Her shuddersome ride to seek General Lee’s pardon for the unfortunate officer condemned to be shot at daybreak, was as inevitable as measles. The geography might be reversed occasionally to give a Northern girl a chance, but in any event her brother’s animosity toward the hero was always a pleasing factor. Another ancient formula lately revived with slight variations gives us a shaggy elemental man brought by shipwreck or other means into contact with gentle womanhood. In his play The Great Divide William Vaughn Moody invested this device with dignity and power, but it would be interesting to see what trick might be performed with the same cards if the transformed hero should finally take his departure for the bright boulevards, while the heroine seized his bow and arrow and turned joyfully to the wilderness. The present popular type portrays the girl with Daniel’s weakness for venturing into fiery furnaces and among lions, — always to reappear unscathed to take her curtains before applauding audiences.

When our writers cease their futile experimenting and imitating and wake up to the possibilities of American material we shall have fewer complaints of the impotence of the American novel. We are just a little impatient of the holding of the mirror up to nature, but nevertheless we do not like to be fooled all the time. And no one is quicker than an American to ‘get down to brass tacks’ when he realizes that he must come to it. Realism is the natural medium through which a democracy may ‘register’ (to borrow a term from the screen drama) its changing emotions, its hopes and failures. We are willing to take our recreations in imaginary kingdoms, but we are blessed with a healthy curiosity as to what really is happening among our teeming millions, and are not so blind as our foreign critics and the croakers at home would have us think as to what we do and feel and believe. But the realists must play the game straight. They must paint the wart on the sitter’s nose — though he refuse to pay for the portrait! Half-hearted dallying and sidling and compromising are not getting us anywhere. The flimsiest romance is preferable to dishonest realism. It is the meretricious stuff in the guise of realism that we are all anxious to pepper with birdshot.

Having thus, I hope, appeased the realists, who are an exacting phalanx, difficult to satisfy, I feel that it is only right, just, and proper to rally for a moment the scampering hosts of the romanticists. It is deplorable that Realism should be so roused to bloodthirstiness by any intrusion upon the landscape of Romanticism’s dainty frocks and fluttering ribbons. Before Realism was, Romance ruled in many kingdoms. If Romance had not been, Realism would not be. Let the Cossacks keep to their side of the river and behave like gentlemen! Others have said it who spoke with authority, and I shall not scruple to repeat, that the story for the story’s sake is a perfectly decent, honorable, and praiseworthy thing. It is as old as human nature, and the desire for it wall not perish till man has been recreated. Neither much argument about it, nor the limning against the gray Russian skyline of the august figures of Dostoiefsky, Tolstoy, and Turgenieff will change the faith of the many who seek in fiction cheer and recreation.

Again, I beg, let us preserve a good temper as we ponder these matters. More and more we shall have true realism; but more and more let us hope for the true romance. Stevenson’s familiar contributions to the discussion are in the best vein of the cause he espouses; and although a New York newspaper referred to him the other day as the ‘Caledonian poseur,’ his lanternbearers continue to signal merrily from the heights and are not to be confused with Realism’s switch-lights in the railroad yards in the valley. The lords of the high pale brow in classrooms and on the critical dais are much too contemptuous of romance.1 Romance we must have, to the end of time, no matter how nobly Realism may achieve. With our predisposition as a healthy-minded and cheerful people toward tales of the night-rider and the scratch of the whip-butt on the inndoor, it is unfair to slap Romance on the wrist and post her off to bed like a naughty stepchild. Even the stern brow of the realist must relax at times.

Many people of discernment found pleasure in our Richard Carvels, Janice Merediths, and Hugh Wynnes. Miss Johnston’s To Have and to Hold and Lewis Rand are books one may enjoy without shame. The stickler for style need not be scornful of Mrs. Catherwood’s Lazarre and The Romance of Dollard. Out of Chicago came Mr. Henry Fuller’s charming exotic, The Chevalier of Piensieri-V ani. Monsieur Beaucaire and Miss Sherwood’s Daphne proved a while ago that all the cherries have not been shaken from the tree — only the trees in these cases unfortunately were not American. Surely one of these days a new Peter Pan will fly over an American greenwood! I should bless the hand that pressed upon me for reading to-night so diverting a skit as Mr. Vielé’s The Inn of the Silver Moon. I shall not even pause to argue with those who are plucking my coat-tails and whispering that these are mere trifles, too frivolous to be mentioned when the novel is the regular order of the conference. I am looking along the shelf for Stockton, the fanciful and whimsical. How pleasant it would be to meet Mrs. Lecks and Mrs. Aleshine again, or to lodge for a day at another Squirrel Inn. And yet (O fame, thou fickle one!) when I asked a young lady the other day if she knew Stockton, she replied with emphasis that she did not; that ‘that old quaint stuff does n’t go any more!’

Having handed Realism a ticket to Pittsburg with generous stop-over privileges, I regret that I am unable to point Romance to any such promising terminus. But the realm of Romance is extra-territorial; Realism alone demands the surveyor’s certificate and abstracts of title. An Irish poet once assured me that fairies are to be found everywhere; and surely somewhere between Moosehead Lake and Puget Sound some lad is piping lustily on a new silver whistle where the deer come down to drink.


It is the fashion to attribute to the automobile and the motion picture all social phenomena not otherwise accounted for. The former has undoubtedly increased our national restlessness, and it has robbed the evening lamp of its cosy bookish intimacy. The screen drama makes possible the ‘reading’ of a story with the minimum amount of effort. A generation bred on the ‘ movies ’ will be impatient of the tedious methods of writers who cannot transform character by a click of the camera, but require at least four hundred pages to turn the trick. It is doubtful whether any of the quasi-historical novels that flourished fifteen and twenty years ago and broke a succession of best-selling records would meet with anything approximating the same amiable reception if launched to-day. A trained scenario writer, unembarrassed by literary standards and intent upon nothing but action, can beat the melodramatic novelist at his own game every time. A copyright novel of adventure cannot compete with the same story at five or ten cents as presented in the epileptic drama, where it lays no burden upon the beholder’s visualizing sense. The resources of the screen drama for creating thrills are inexhaustible; it draws upon the heavens above, the earth beneath, and the waters under the earth; and as nothing that can be pictured can be untrue, — or so the confiding ‘movie’ patron, unfamiliar with the tricks of the business, believes,—the screen has also the great advantage of plausibility.

The silent drama may t herefore exercise a beneficent influence, if it shall prove to have shunted into a new channel of publication great numbers of stories whose justification between covers was always debatable. Already many novels of this type have been resurrected by the industrious screen producers. If, after the long list has been exhausted, we shall be spared the ‘ novelization’ of screen scenarios in the fashion of the novelized play, we shall be rid of some of the debris that has handicapped the novelists who have meekly asked to be taken seriously.

The fiction magazines also have cut into the sales of ephemeral novels. For the price of one novel the uncritical reader may fortify himself with enough reading matter to keep him diverted for a month. The literary magazine is no longer reverenced as a means of fixing a household’s standard of culture. The family ‘favorite’ used to be subscribed for every Christmas as a religious rite and maintained on the centre table in close proximity to the Bible. Nowadays the hurrying citizen approaches the magazine counter in much the same spirit in which he attacks the help-yourself lunch-trough — grabs what he likes and retires for hurried consumption. It must, however, be said for the much-execrated magazine editors that with all their faults and defaults they are at least alive to the importance and value of American material. It was they who discovered O. Henry, now recognized as a writer of significance. I should like to scribble a marginal note at this point to the effect that writers who are praised for style, those who are able to employ otiose, meticulous, and ineluctable with awe-inspiring inadvertence in tales of morbid introspection, are not usually those w ho are deeply learned in the ways and manners of that considerable body of our people who are obliged to work for a living. We must avoid snobbishness in our speculations as to the available ingredients from which American fiction must be made. Baseball players, vaudeville and motion-picture performers, ladies engaged as commercial travelers, and Pot ash and Perl mutter, are ail legitimate subjects for the fictionist, and our millions undoubtedly prefer just now to view them humorously or romantically.


In our righteous awakening to the serious plight to which our fiction has come it is not necessary, nor is it becoming, to point the slow unmoving finger of scorn at those benighted but well-meaning folk who in times past did what they could toward fashioning an American literature. We all see their errors now; we deplore their stupidity, we wish they had been quite different; but why drag their bones from the grave for defilement? Cooper and Irving meant well; there are still misguided souls who find pleasure in them. It was not Hawthorne’s fault that he so bungled The Scarlet Letter, nor Poe’s that he frittered away his time inventing the detective story. Our deep contrition must not betray us into hardness of heart against those unconscious sinners, who cooled their tea in the saucer and never heard of a samovar!

There are American novelists whose portraits I refuse to turn to the wall. Marion Crawford had very definite ideas, which he set forth in a most entertaining essay, as to what the novel should be, and he followed his formula with happy results. His Saracinesca still seems to me a fine romance. There was some marrow in the bones of E. W. Howe’s Story of a Country Town. I can remember when Miss Woolson was highly regarded as a writer, and when Miss Howard’s amusing One Summer seemed not an ignoble thing. F. J. Stimson, Thomas Nelson Page, Arthur Sherburne Hardy, Miss Murfree, Mary Hallock Foote, T. B. Aldrich, T. R. Sullivan, H. C. Bunner, Robert Grant, and Harold Frederic all labored sincerely for the cause of American fiction. F. Hopkinson Smith told a good story and told it like a gentleman. Mr. Cable’s right to a place in the front rank of American novelists is not, I believe, questioned in any survey; if The Grandissimes and Old Creole Days had been written in France, he would probably be pointed to as an author well worthy of American emulation.

No doubt this list might be considerably expanded, as I am drawing from memory, and merely suggesting writers whose performances in most instances synchronize with my first reading of American novels. I do not believe we are helping our case materially by ignoring these writers as though they were a lot of poor relations whenever a foreign critic turns his condescending gaze in our direction.


It is a hopeful sign that we now produce one or two, or maybe three, good novels a year. The number is bound to increase as our young writers of ambition realize that technique and facility are not the only essentials of success, but that they must burrow into life — honeycomb it until their explorations carry them to the core of it. There are novels that are half good; some are disfigured by wobbly characterizations, or the patience necessary to a proper development of the theme is lacking. However, sincerity and an appreciation of the highest function of the novel as a medium for interpreting life are not so rare as the critics would have us believe.

The plea that the great American novel is being written in installments and that it will never be more than a jumble of disjecta membra is no longer entitled to an entry in the pleadings in re The People vs. The American Novel. I have never subscribed to the doctrine that the sun of American literature rises in Indiana and sets in Kansas. We have had much provincial fiction, and the monotony of our output would be happily varied by attempts at something of national scope. It is not to disparage the small picture that I suggest for experiment the broadly panoramic, — “a Hugo flare against the night,” — but because the novel as we practice it seems so pitifully small measured by the material. I am aware of course that a hundred pages are as good as a thousand if the breath of life is in them. Flaubert, says Mr. James, made things big.

We must escape from this carving of cherry stones, this contentment with the day of littleness, this use of the novel as a plaything where it pretends to be something else. And it occurs to me at this juncture that I might have saved myself a considerable expenditure of ink by stating in the first place that what the American novel really needs is a Walt Whitman to emit a barbaric yawp from the crest of the Alleghanies and proclaim a new freedom. Why could n’t Mr. Robert Frost have been a novelist instead of a poet ? For what I have been trying to say comes down to this: that we shall not greatly serve ourselves or the world’s literature by attempts to Russianize, or Gallicize, or Anglicize our fiction, but that we must strive more earnestly to Americanize it, - to make it express with all the art we may command the life we are living and that pretty tangible something that we call the American spirit.

The bright angels of letters never appear in answer to prayer; they come out of nowhere and knock at unwatched gates. But the wailing of jeremiads before the high altar is not calculated to soften the hearts of the gods who hand down genius from the skies. It is related that a clerk in the patent office asked to be assigned to a post in some other department on the ground that practically everything had been invented and he wanted to change before he lost his job. That was in 1833.

Courage, comrade! The songs have not all been written nor the tales all told.

  1. Having just read, in the August Harper’s, Professor Canby’s protest against flings at the highbrow, I must add that the term as we use it in the corn belt is one of endearment and envy. At times on wet nights I have crept in from the muddy road and thrown down my blanket on the outer fringes of the highbrow camp, and it is far from my purpose to sneer at the sound discourse I have heard there. — THE AUTHOR.