Poor America

I

THE history of criticism is a melancholy one. I have read that in the year 1606, the year in which King Lear and Macbeth were presented to the happy multitude, Ben Jonson, ‘who was criticism incarnate,’ who loathed ‘the general public,’ declared that English drama was going to the dogs. For excellent reasons time does not avenge every writer slighted of the critics as it avenged William Shakespeare; but conflicts between orthodoxy and the despised public have by no means always ended in orthodoxy’s favor. Such issues have taught nothing, however. At Edinburgh sixteen years ago, Mr. Augustine Birrell, who possibly has not a great deal to learn from younger essayists in the criticism of literature, delivered an address entitled, ‘Is it possible to tell a good book from a bad one?’ But what to Mr. Birrell is a feat of fine discrimination, ‘extremely difficult,’ he says, is, and has always been, a simple affair to the conventional appraiser of these delicate values. Old Jonson is dead, but his spirit goes marching on. Temperamental reactions still assume the airs of the judgments of Olympus. Awful disagreements among the temples, so frequent and so delightful to the ungodly, the ghastly mistakes of predecessors, hanging over all the field of literature like dead men in the trees, these things sound no tinkle of warning in closed doctorial ears. And who would have it otherwise? This fulfills the law. Dogma was always the true voice of orthodoxy, and a grave cocksureness is the proper crutch of the lamest of all arts.

It is no moment to be trifling with the international comity, but let us remember that it was not we who threw the first stone. And after all, our fatal fascination for the critics of Great Britain is too old a story to draw blood now. If, in the department of letters, the tendency to cousinly correction has seemed unusually active of late, that is a mere psychologic rhythm, no doubt, a wave. The thing might be just worth a note in passing. Thus I remember Mr. Arnold Bennett, suavest of his compatriots, but clearly with small hope of American literature in this generation. I recall Mr. W. L. George, charging upon us, if memory serves, bare of critical laurels won elsewhere; his proud and particular contribution being that he knew our literature solely through three contemporary native writers, all of whom he found ‘ very national and very inferior.’ More recently I was struck, decidedly so, by the utterances of Mr. Edward Garnett; 1 of whom more anon. I note in passing that Mr. Garnett ‘hopes to discuss’ us again, at no distant date. Naturally. That he is not alone in England with this hope we may be reasonably confident. Meanwhile, just at the moment of writing, there comes to hand Mr. James Stephens, an Irish author, whose grasp of English grammar is not, I am convinced, displayed to the best advantage in the following sentence from his pen: ‘It [America] has not yet had the leisure to evolve a social order, to conserve its traditions, and form a life habitual to itself, and against the background of which every facet of the national existence may be judged.’

But Mr. Stephens, however worried by his whiches, is not the man to mince words. It is a pleasure to spread this example of urbane and well-considered criticism: —

‘American writers [says Mr. Stephens] have not learned how to write; their thoughts are superficial, they have no critical intelligence, and they have the sad courage of these disabilities.’

Now as this sort of thing is not novel, neither is it very important, perhaps. The truth seems to be that casual criticism rarely amounts to more than the disclosure of somebody’s point of view: a disclosure often beautifully unconscious, a point of view of quite variable and uncertain value. Mr. Brownell’s apt phrase, ‘the irresponsibility of pure temperament,’ helps to explain many critical curiosities. And certainly the ‘ condescension in foreigners ’ would not be worth mentioning at all at this day, were it not for one striking circumstance attending it. I mean the attitude toward these proceedings of authority in this country.

It is certainly arresting that the transatlantic attack, however crude or violent, seldom evokes the smallest resentment on this side of the water. The uncommonly quaint specimen quoted was itself first encountered as the text of an editorial article in one of our most respected periodicals; but the American editor betrayed nowhere any sense that our critic was himself conceivably subject to criticism. No, we take assault and battery with all the tameness becoming to inferiors. So far from rushing to the rescue of our buffered writers, our guides and philosophers make haste to declare that it is all true, only more so; and, not to be caught napping, in dull times dully repeat the tale of our shame, without any foreign incitation whatever. Thus the situation, instead of lightening, is constantly intensified. Language grows harsher as the tale grows more threadbare, as the sense of numbers gives waxing assurance. We may doubt whether Mr. James Stephens would have had the sad courage of his angularities, had he not known that the doctors were behind him.

So, too, in our own country. In a New York newspaper symposium last spring, a young American writer, himself rather popular perhaps than destined for the ages, referred offhand to ‘the present base condition of literature in the United States.’ The youthful judge offered no justification for his vivid language; one does n’t need to justify a commonplace. And all authority, all British orthodoxy and its loyal native following, seems agreed that contemporary American literature is ‘base,’ and contemporary American writers of a character which instinctively produces baseness, as a hen produces an egg.2

Such unanimity is uncommon; it seems overpowering and final. But is it so indeed? May we not remember the foible of orthodoxy, the critic’s cautious passion to be ‘regular’? Should we not even frankly discount the rare unanimity with that known critical tendency toward the congregated and conventional, than which — it is again Mr. Brownell who speaks — ‘ nothing is more insidious ’ ?

II

Mr. Edward Garnett was introduced to dark America through the medium of a biographical note in the Atlantic Monthly, last December. We must not jest about the testimonial from Mr. John Galsworthy; these matters are serious. For the rest, Mr. Garnett introduced himself, surely in no faltering tones. I read his remarks on the subject of American fiction with a hearty and constant sense of opposition. Finishing my perusal in a state of extreme irritation (for even low Americans have their rudimentary feelings, I suppose), I thought: ‘ Really, somebody ought to reply to our plain-speaking cousin; some vigorous American writer of high standing and independence.’ Whereon, almost as if at a cue in a play, I was told that just such a person was to reply to Mr. Garnett! And at once in my innocence I was vastly cheered; vastly expectant, I will confess it, of a memorable reprisal upon the insular self-satisfactions of Britain.

Naturally, these artless feelings were born but to die. When I came at last upon the promised reply I read with opening eyes and a falling crest.

Mr. Owen Wister’s intentions had, of course, been totally misrepresented to me. Unseemly quarreling was, only too obviously, the last thing in his mind. It might indeed have seemed that few persons on earth stood less in need of mere corroboration than Mr. Garnett; nevertheless Mr. Wister’s merely corroborative purposes became unmistakable from his third paragraph. Here I encountered, with a start, an old acquaintance of mine, in that sentence beginning, as it usually does, ‘ The reason why Americans are so fond of bamboozle, generally preferring sham to reality . . .’ That seemed to settle it; after bamboozle, I hardly needed to meet, later on, the Subsidized Press, that favorite bugaboo of Mr. William Jennings Bryan, and other sayings, all tried and true. Bamboozle assured me, once for all, that we had but the old sermon again, though charmingly retrimmed; the thrice-slain slain again with the odd but delightful high spirits of youth; no champion at all, but only a lusty new recruit in the respectable chorus which chants forever of the baseness of America.

This was no ordinary recruit, however; far from it. The assailant of the popular American novel this time was himself an American novelist of extreme popularity: which several facts invested his positions with a significance and weight not attachable to the alien critic, of however ‘recognized authority.’ Moreover there was the remarkable vigor of the new attack, a ruthless exterminative vigor, quite eclipsing what had gone before. Space lacks for general comparisons. But at least it must be noted that it was Mr. Wister, not Mr. Garnett, who broadly implied that American novelists are literary prostitutes. And it was Mr. Wister’s sense of proportion, not Mr. Garnett’s, which unlimbered six columns upon Mr. Harold Bell Wright, and victoriously drew sentences from the Grand Rapids Herald and the Providence Telegram (whose ‘critics’ are possibly also their ‘society editors,’ only too thankfully accepting the canned enthusiasm of the publishers), as fair evidence of the critical standards of America.

It is Mr. Wister’s singular triumph that he has left Mr. Garnett looking as meek as Moses. But his accomplishment is larger than that. By reason of the several circumstances just noted, he seems to gather into himself, he ousts and replaces, all predecessors in the well-worn field. Nor can we say that such a sweeping of the lists was inadvertent exactly. Glance a moment at that passage, comparatively sweet, in which Mr. Wister hustles large bodies of competing critics off the stage.

‘ Lest certain genteel critics [he writes] 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.’

However, to me the really intriguing thing about this passage was not the pointedness of the punitive raid at all. Rather it was the writer’s fine unconsciousness of the fact that his description of ‘genteel criticism’ appeared to fit the body of his own remarks — well, better than a suit from Poole’s, say. I, at least, had found nothing at all in ‘Quack Novels and Democracy’ but that the author of it, strangely like the Chicago Dial, was hastening to asseverate that he has always known what Mr. Garnett said; that, like the Evening Post and the others, he did, after the fact, perceive and praise merit; and that, indistinguishably one with all conventional critics of every age and clime, he stood ever ready to be the first to hail a perfectly well-established artist.

Is this unfair, mere coarse repartee? Well, it seems to be largely a question of literal fact. What merit, in truth, has our critic praised before the fact, what sincere but neglected artist does he, more courageous than the genteel, summon to banquet beneath his spotlight? I have searched his sentences in vain for one reckless championship. To be sure, he is rather more liberal here than the Briton, who has prudently confined his approval of America almost exclusively to the dead. (O happy dead! — safe predigested food of timid criticism! — surely you must look down sometimes from where you are, and laugh and roar at the belated garlands!)

But where, among his cited living, are the gallant discoveries? Margaret Deland, William Allen White, Judge Robert Grant, Mary S. Watts, Meredith Nicholson — is it some delusion of the tricksy brain, or am I really right in thinking that the Dial, the Transcript, and the rest of the reproved have long since anticipated Mr. Wister’s guarded celebration of these ‘perfectly well-established artists’?3

III

But that is a detail. The American novelist’s preëmption of the centre of the stage gives to his argument, as I believe, an importance entitling it to unusual consideration. And his target, of course, is not the critics of America. No, the frontal attack is upon the American people, in extenso; in chief, upon their national vulgarity as exhibited in their capacity of a Reading Public. In these words (I mark with capitals the abused but convenient term) Mr. Wister states his thesis for us with splendid lucidity: —

‘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’ — bamboozle, sham, baseness, and so forth. ‘Phrases and falsehood were made bone of our bone and flesh of our flesh’ — thus our American spokesman historically accounts for us in a graceful passage.

Now to say, or imply, that American novelists, generally, falsify their impressions of life, with the low design of tickling dollars from a Public ingrown to falsehood — this is indeed a charge sufficiently comprehensive and damaging. Novelists and People alike might justly wish to inquire the grounds of so cutting an indictment. And when they come to search, as of right, for the solid bones of the impressionistic argument, — for what the vulgar would call proof, in fine,—they find themselves confronted with evidences such as these: —

1. The alleged deterioration of two American writers under the temptation of the cheap magazine.

2. Several critical sentences taken from the Grand Rapids Herald, the Philadelphia Sunday Dispatch, the Oregon Journal, and the Providence Telegram.

3. The popularity of Mr. Harold Bell Wright.

4. The popularity of the Cosmopolitan.

The first of these evidences of national vulgarity the smitten Public will find, I fear, beyond the reach of argument. It is not for all of us to search the hearts of strangers, and capture their most secret and subtle impulses to point a saying. Perhaps we might doubt at least whether any American geniuses have been tampered with, whether the Cosmopolitan has cost us a single masterpiece. Perhaps we might feel that though the wanton deterioration of two American talents, or four, could be proved unanswerably, that would still be some distance from saying that such prostitution is the habit of American novelists. ‘They assail money,’ says the resolute Mr. Wister, ‘in hopes to fill their pockets with it.’ Maybe so; I have no clairvoyance here.

I lack, too, Mr. Wister’s familiarity with the works of Mr. Harold Bell Wright, and must acknowledge that I skipped his long burlesque on them. I believe I have the drift, however, and I must say I consider it a hollow triumph. Mr. Meredith Nicholson has anticipated me in urging Mr. Wister’s attention to the literary taste of England, as evidenced by the sales figures of Mrs. Barclay, Mr. Hall Caine, and Miss Marie Corelli. The retort appears entirely sufficient. And similarly with the matter of comparative criticism. Whenever Mr. Wister feels inclined to generalize concerning England, I dare say he can match his humorous extracts from obscure American newspapers with kindred bits from the Land’s End Sentinel, say, or the Yarmouth Fisherman.

That ‘ taste’ runs everywhere in higher and lower levels, and that what we consider the lower levels run wide and deep through all peoples known to history — this is an observation so jejune that one must apologize for asking attention to it. But the gaze of our critics is not seldom so passionately concentrated that the international aspects of truth, however truistic, seem to elude them altogether. Such oversights are unfortunate in argument; and Mr. Wister’s whole thesis, as I believe, is based upon just such an oversight. I refer to his supposition that a particular division of the Public, chosen as obviously easy to chastise, is none other than the Public. Of course the fact is that there are a great number of publics, everywhere overlapping indeed, but never by any chance merging in unity to prove a special plea.4

Of this basic oversight — or should one say this gift of happy selection?— Mr. Wister’s remarks about the Cosmopolitan seem to furnish an excellent illustration. That the Cosmopolitan is a considerably meretricious mixture, most cleverly concocted to sell like hot cakes, and that it does meet the taste of a very large number of American readers (and English readers, if you please — observe the prevalence of Nash’s on the British bookstalls), I, at least, should not think of denying. But why is it assumed that this particular public is the true and representative Public, that it is the American people, in short? Why, look at the size of it! we imagine the critic as expostulating. So we do look. And of course we immediately observe that if the Cosmopolitan, with its ‘million circulation,’ really represents America, then the Saturday Evening Post, with its two million circulation, must represent America twice as much.

My own feeling, indeed, is that the figures quite fail to give the true relation here. I should say that the Satur-day Evening Post was five times, or ten times, as representative of America as the Cosmopolitan. In the Saturday Evening Post we have a periodical sole and unique in the history of periodicals: a magazine which enters a larger proportion of the homes of a people than was ever dreamed of before, which is read four times a month at every crossroads and haystack in America. So far as there is or can be such a homogeneity as the American Reading Public, I should say that the Saturday Evening Post does represent it, truly, nationally, and remarkably.

Therefore, I think that Mr. Wister, in setting about his studies of our national taste in periodicals, made a mistake in forgetting all about the Saturday Evening Post. I cannot help thinking that if he had only remembered the Saturday Evening Post even for a minute or two, he would not have been nearly so much ashamed of us. Not everything printed in that amazing magazine is literature, certainly. But no one has ever said, to my knowledge, that its appeal was mean, shameful, corrupt, or falsified. It does display, I must confess, a certain amount of miserable American ‘ optimism, ’ of accursed patriotism even. But then, it never prints the sugared ‘sex stuff’; it never toys with scandal, or muckrakes even, throws abroad no vulgar boasts of itself; and it has let the Cosmopolitan buy away the writers specially named by Mr. Wister as producing ‘ quack novels ’ for the money there is in it. On the other hand, for its enormous public, the Saturday Evening Post commands, at its pleasure, the services of many of the most distinguished authors of England and America.

Prominent among these writers of distinction must be mentioned Mr. Owen Wister. Only the other day, it seem, the Saturday Evening Post published from the pen of Mr. Wister an article on the European war, which a certain publisher, reckoned one of the keenest critics we have, advised me to read as the best war piece he had yet seen. I note that the author’s own publisher, in bringing out this article as a book, pays it the same high tribute.

But what did the Saturday Evening Post of all periodicals, so frankly catering, not to the Mr. Garnetts of this weary world, but to the gross millions whom they despise, want with so distinguished a piece of writing ? Is it conceivable that the most successful of all American magazines can be right in its belief that the so-called Reading Public of America includes innumerable entirely undistinguished persons who are quite capable of appreciating the best that can be given to them?

IV

All of which seems to bring us logically to the great root-question: Is the gulf between orthodox good taste and the taste of the base American quite so wide and awful as our conventional critics would have us believe?

That question is the quintessence of the disagreement. And it is after all largely a question of literal comparison, of the evidences of taste as each class furnishes them for itself. Luckily too, the material for such comparison is abundantly at hand.

Having robbed us of our Harold Bell Wright and our Cosmopolitan, which he appears to consider our principal reading-matter, Mr. Wister joins with Mr. Garnett in indicating a list of worthy and improving authors, all guaranteed guiltless of the crime of ‘democratizing literature.’ This list naturally commands our instant attention and instantly it arrests us with a large surprise.

Of what might be called the newer generation of American writers — that is to say, those whose reputation has been made in the last ten or twenty years, and under contemporary conditions — the orthodox roster is found to consist of these names: Stephen Crane, Frank Norris, O. Henry, Anne Douglas Sedgwick, Edith Wharton, S. Weir Mitchell, Herman K. Vielé;and — Mr. Wister’s personally guaranteed living — Mrs. Deland, Mr. White, Judge Grant, Mrs. Watts, and Mr. Nicholson. Here then are no less than twelve contemporary American writers whom, as I understand it, we are authorized to read henceforward without the smallest sense of shame, falseness, or bamboozle.

But at once we are bewildered by a strange discovery, deeply disturbing to our eagerness to learn: we are reading all these writers already. We have always been reading them. Each is, or has been, followed by a large and enthusiastic public. Ah, but — our critics may ‘ hasten to asseverate ’ — none of them is so popular as Harold Bell Wright! Good! And yet — does that prove anything in particular, after all? The truth is that we have a great many very poor writers who are not so popular as Mr. Wright, and who, also, are not by any means so popular as the select authors above. The fact remains, astonishing but immovable: each of the elect has figured conspicuously among the American ‘best sellers.’ The term is used in no loose sense, either. I mean to say by it, and I think my memory is sound, that every one of them (with the possible exception of Vielé, whose record I should have to look up) has starred in the Bookman’s lists of the ‘ six best-selling ’ novels in the country

— a list which faithfully represents the tastes of our publics, which no novel enters without being read from one end of America to the other. And most of these distinguished writers have appeared in the vulgar list with what is orthodoxly reckoned their best work, and many of them have appeared in it again and again.

The devil is in the business surely. If the authentic good in America is also the widely popular, what is the basis of the unceasing lecture? And exactly why must we be called falsified and false?

The general popularity of the authentic good: this surely is an idea so unsettling to the conventional attack as to take a deal of explaining. If it is a fact, and it is, it must run large through the history of literature, and it does. How is it that our pastors and masters may be counted on never to see it?

Well, sometimes dense ignorance of famous facts seems the critic’s sole reliance. When, for example, Mr. Edward Garnett writes, ‘ I do not know whether the late O. Henry’s marvelous powers . . . have yet received their due in America,’ he makes a staggering, let us say at once a most damaging, admission. Might we not expect that the just critic would wish to inform himself on fundamental points? I will say for Mr. Garnett’s benefit that if ever there was a rousing American-made success, a common-people-made success anywhere, it was O. Henry’s here. He is the unluckiest case for orthodoxy that a week’s search could have produced. Nor was it until this much-loved and deeply regretted American writer was securely dead, that the college professors, in England and America, ‘ discovered’ him; and in his triumph the sad but safe group of conventional critics was found riding at the extreme tail of the procession, — a position, let me openly add, by no means unfamiliar to them.5

Or again, the critic eyes the confounding fact, and courageously denies it. Such an one was that ‘ distinguished American novelist,’ unnamed, whom Mr. George P. Brett, in an Atlantic article three years ago, quoted as saying that in the present, or base, condition of American literature, he would feel disgraced if any novel of his ‘ sold ’ 100,000 copies. We necessarily assume that the gentleman in question possesses a private system for accounting for the roaring American sales of O. Henry and Mrs. Wharton, not to say a word about the classic English best-sellers from Fielding to Rudyard Kipling. But what his system is, alas, and how you work it, remains a deep dark secret to this day.

Mr. Wister, it is pleasant to note, shows greater open-mindedness. He senses the knocking contradiction; he settles it with an offhand whack. ‘What made The House of Mirth a “bestseller,” ’ he gayly assures us, ‘was not at all that Mrs. Wharton’s portraits of the rich were brilliantly made, but that they did not happen to be flattering; the daubs of Mr. Sinclair and the billposters of Mr. Chambers are quite as satisfactory to that audience.’

That audience! By the way, what audience?

Perhaps the ‘audience’ of The House of Mirth was the very same audience that adored The Common Law; perhaps it was a very different audience indeed. Perhaps the odd tribute magnifies Mrs. Wharton’s gift; perhaps it seriously disparages it. No matter. Our interest is in the critical formula, sorely needed, for explaining away the popularity of the good.

This formula, as the critic indicates it, is simple, definite, and damning enough. But will it work? Is it true, to generalize from the particular, that the popularity of good novels is due, or even probably due, ‘not at all’ to their sound merits, but merely to ‘happening,’ merely to some chance pandering to the prejudices of the populace? For if this rule works for The House of Mirth, it should work as well for other novels at once widely popular and orthodoxly approved; it should work, to take an obvious case near home, for Lady Baltimore, say. Well, I have tested it upon Lady Baltimore, and it gave forth unmistakably a brassy ring. I have satisfied myself, first of all, that Mr. Wister’s hypothesis falls to pieces upon Mr. Wister. And if it should be said that the retort is personal and therefore trivial, I should have to reply frankly that, as the distinguished contributor to the Saturday Evening Post seems to me the last person to speak with pertinence of America’s vulgar taste, just so the distinguished American novelist, enormously ‘successful’ yet not exactly false, seems to me precisely the person to destroy the lugubrious assistant of Mr. Garnett and strange bedfellow of the New York Evening Post.

V

I suspect that a volunteer spokesman for the despised and indifferent Public lays himself open to crushing retorts. Doubtless, from the above remarks, I shall be supposed to hold that there is no such thing as cultivated taste; to have maintained that all good novels are popular, even that all popular novels are good; that a list of best-sellers is a list of the cream of literature; and many such a merry saying. But I am really not quite so bad as that; and we recall that it was the voice of orthodoxy which named best-sellers to us as the cream. As for that, perhaps one reason why every best-seller is not a fine work of art is that there are not always enough fine works to go around: even England does n’t produce a masterpiece every week. And my contention here is merely this, that the constant criticism of American culture, or want of it, has at last reached a point where it automatically reduces itself to absurdity.

We have seen that our assailant undertook to convince us that, because of a certain cheapness and falseness in the American temperament, American writers must be cheap and false, or else not ‘succeed.’ He convinced me, on the contrary, that no American writer need be in the least afraid to write as deeply and truly as he knows how. He indicated a society in which people read nothing but Mr. Harold Bell Wright. He happens to live in a society in which people in large numbers prefer to read Mrs. Wharton. He hypothesized — with Mr. Garnett’s assistance — an atmosphere in which the artist is ‘ isolated,’ ‘hemmed in,’ and ‘cut off.’ He disclosed an atmosphere in which the artist is followed by a respectable mob. He seemed determined to make us believe that the authentic good is lost, if not detested, in America. But his actual contribution proves nothing so clearly as that the authentic good is widely and persistently popular in America.

The phenomenon, as we have noted, remains inadequately explained by orthodoxy. It is time to try to fill it with the one simple hypothesis which our critics never seem to consider: the good is commonly popular in America because our publics comprise a surprisingly large number of readers who like and prize the good.

Once this simple truth is got well into one’s head, it is remarkable how the difficulties roll away.

Be it noted, however, this is not saying that every novelist pronounced good by the orthodox is certain to be popular in America. That the guaranteed good novelists above are all popular with us — well, perhaps there was some luck in that. Certainly I am not forgetting that there are masters partially neglected here, as elsewhere, that there are delicate artists whose appeal for us has been narrow. I am not forgetting Sarah Orne Jewett, cited by Mr. Garnett, an example presumably of the second group. I am not forgetting Meredith and Mr. James, the stock examples of the first and more robustious group. I declare on my own responsibility that Mr. Joseph Conrad, though now enjoying a merited ‘ boom,’ is by way of becoming a third exemplar of this group. And doubtless those better read than I can produce various other instances of sound and sincere artists who have permanently failed of the widest hearing.

But that is as far as I can go. When masters are neglected, it is a calamity; but I think we should not necessarily acquit the masters of all responsibility in the matter.

It is quite generally assumed that the great and the true are intrinsically too difficult for common understandings. I believe the assumption to be nonsense. If a man thinks he has a story to tell, and deliberately sets to work to tell it in such a manner that only extraordinary and brilliant persons can hope to follow him, that man is a dreary fool. But great novelists, whatever else they are, are never dreary fools; and their unapproachableness, when they are unapproachable, is never willful, I suppose, and never the proof of their greatness. To employ a manner and a narrative method which ordinary readers find quite impenetrable and even the most cultivated persons at times find irritating to the last degree — this is no mark of the god, but the limp in a great man’s gait. To baffle, bewilder, frustrate, and ‘lock up ’ the reader — this is a novelist’s crime, no matter who commits it. And the fixed truth seems to be that the biggest episodes, characters, conflicts, morals, and meanings are not at all beyond the mental grasp of ordinary persons; and the greatest novelists have commonly, and without effort, lodged their intentions in the minds of great masses of plain people.

And here we must consider too the purely comparative points in the attack: the point of the superiority of the contemporary English novelist to the contemporary American, with the deduction concerning the inferiority of the so-called American Reading Public. The superiority of the English novelist is herewith cheerfully conceded; though indeed one might wish it were not considered essential for us to admit it every morning, on our knees.

It must be noted that the reported prevalence of genius in Britain has latterly been so great as to startle one at times; even causing irreverent persons to wonder if the method of diagnosis might conceivably be at fault. Britishers dedicated to posterity, usually very young Britishers, have blossomed in every publisher’s list. And by an odd coincidence, we do indeed find that, hand in hand with the strange epidemic of immortality, there has flourished an equally strange theory of the novel. It may be briefly indicated, if we may accept Mr. Henry James as our guide, as the theory which is in practice chiefly characterized by‘this preposterous pretension to acquit itself of the structural and compositional office.’

Here, we must admit, the gulf between Anglo-American orthodoxy and the common American has sometimes yawned wide and deep. Novels built according to the prevailing mode have rarely failed to win strong successes with our critics, genteel or otherwise; but not all the little masters of England have been best-sellers with us, by a good deal. However, I have already confessed that, when these little differences of opinion occur, I am in no hurry to say that the Public is necessarily in the wrong.

And as to the authenticated best writers of England, we have nothing to explain. We are simply all there.

Mr. Garnett makes a list of the ’genuine original’ novelists of England, to the number of ’over sixty.’ But he has previously indicated to us six more, as being still better than the sixty. These six at the ultimate summit — or five if we omit Mr. Hardy, who hardly seems to belong with the juniors — are Mr. Joseph Conrad, Mr. H. G. Wells, Mr. Rudyard Kipling, Mr. Arnold Bennett, and Mr. John Galsworthy. It is noted at once that all these names are rather better known in America than that of Artzibashef, say. I dare say the young lady at the hotel news-stand has heard of all of them. To bring the point directly to a head: our news-stand, or periodical, literature has been seized upon by our critics as a true gauge of our public taste. Very well; then the attitude of the American magazine toward the principal artists of the day becomes a subject of no little pertinence to our inquiry. And I recall that within the past year Mr. Conrad’s latest work has been published in Munsey’s Magazine, Mr. Wells’s in Collier’s, Mr. Kipling’s in the Metropolitan, Mr. Bennett’s in the Metropolitan and Munsey’s, and Mr. Galsworthy’s (heaven help him!) in the Cosmopolitan. And this, of course, is speaking only of fiction, saying nothing, for example, of Mr. Kipling’s articles in the Cosmopolitan, and Mr. Bennett’s in the Saturday Evening Post.

Perhaps it was facts like these that Mr. Wister had in mind when he said that the artist was ‘ isolated ’ in America, ’hemmed in.’ An artist hemmed in in the Cosmopolitan must be a fascinating sight!

But I will not dwell on the obvious periodical point, meaning as I do to go a good deal further. We all remember that Meredith first found in false America the artistic recognition which had been denied him in his own country; and I think we can now assert positively, in the face of all assault, that the ability to discriminate has not wholly perished from among us. I haven’t the figures, of course; no one has; I am as empty of proofs here as an impressionist. But I will risk nothing less than the statement that each one of the five English novelists particularly recommended by Mr. Garnett has drawn from America, not merely his largest public, but also the largest measure of that cordial and occasionally consummate appreciation which some writers, even some American writers, do literally value above the cash.

If this conjecture is true, or anywhere near the truth, what becomes of Mr. Garnett’s axiom, joyfully echoed by Mr. Wister, that ‘the American mind is hostile to the artist in literature’? From the Encyclopœdia Britannica to the newest young master of realism, our varied publics are largely supporting the literature of England. If this is true, or if it has any relation to the truth, is it strange that the continual gibes and admonishments of our novel-writing cousins seem to come to us often with a sorry grace?

VI

The weaknesses of the American temperament are sufficiently many and obvious. Few authorities deny them. If they had not been so thoroughly explored and ventilated by many writers — with Mr. Henry L. Mencken, perhaps, in the lead — I myself might have some day wished to write something perfectly true, not to say perfectly truistic, about them. Not actively a patriotic person, I too have ofttimes been annoyed by the ways of my countrymen. But the number and the nature of our assailants has had the logical effect of destroying all carping tendencies. And I rise from the latest ‘ smashing onslaught’ only strengthened in the belief that, if we Americans are indeed uniquely uncultivated, it at all events is certain that we stand uniquely excused.

For our admitted artistic backwardness, the substantial and not dishonoring explanation looms very large. It is, in brief, that we are a young country: young with a complicated and involved youthfulness unexampled in the history of the world. Needless to say, Mr. Wister, with his interest in history, perceives this embarrassing excuse for us: he undertakes to throw it overboard on the first page. ‘We are full grown,’ he declares. ‘Four wars and three presidents assassinated make a considerable past, without mentioning anything else.’ How mature must Mexico be, by such reckoning! How fast has Serbia ripened since 1912! But the truth seems to be that pistols and politics neither make for nor indicate national maturity; the contrary if anything. Ours remains a young country because we remain engaged with the essential preoccupation of youth, — organizing a living. And our youth is unprecedentedly complicated, and in a sense steadily perpetuated, by our special and colossal commission as the caretaker and the future of the surplus population of Europe.

The development of our virgin incalculable resources, material largely but social and political too; the coincident absorption of vast European swarms asearch for something more substantial than arts and graces: this is not intrinsically a lovely, or cultural, life-story. It is easy to conceive of backgrounds more conducive to an exquisite refinement than our tremendous young busyness. But it may be that being artistic is not the biggest thing in the world; and in that we have tackled first the mighty job of organizing our living, I dare say that history will not judge that our profound instincts have betrayed us.

When we touch national maturity — which we shall do, I should suppose, when far more Americans have far more leisure — I, for one, do not despair of us. With true and odious American ‘optimism,’ I venture to hope that in leisure and culture we shall fully express ourselves in a vigorous literature: a literature, I trust, quite free of ‘the continental touch,’ which is Mr. Garnett’s last word of praise for us, but richly, racily, and unashamedly American.

And meanwhile, for this present, is it too much to hope that this incessant, and I must say this silly, scolding of us may cease?

It is easy to arrange for chastisement an American Public composed of cheaply sensuous and sentimental vulgarians whose reading is done exclusively under the auspices of Mr. Hearst. But why do it? Why should we Americans be always judged by our worst? Why must it be assumed that our most vulgar is our most truly representative?

I, for one, never think of the Reading Public in those low terms. For me, the words call up an altogether different picture. They make me think of Free Libraries, responsible-looking women going in and out with books, old men sitting around the periodicaltables, silent youths prowlingamongthe stacks. They make me think of schoolteachers; of spectacles sometimes; of serious young men who write letters to the newspapers; of wealthy, bored, cynical women, of questioning, tired working-women; of sober paterfamiliases and materfamiliases by the evening lamp; of editors and parsons and social servants; of lady doctors’ assistants; of critics even; of educated drummers and beginning lawyers; of aged scholars and precocious school-girls; of John, ‘the queer one’ who puts books above baseball; of intellectual Mary, known to be always scribbling away at something in her locked room; of peace advocates and stenographers and ex-presidents and Booker T. Washington. And in this dim vast sober concourse, which is the Reading Public to me, I seem to find much excellent taste and sound sense and good hardy keenness and independence. And even below the sane mixed average — But no; never mind. Let me stop here.

One day last year, I was riding uptown in New York on a Fourth Avenue street car — or tram, to give it the continental touch. It was six o’clock; the factories and wholesale houses were just emptying; the tram was crowded.

Standing beside me was a little working-girl, evidently just released from her job. She looked jaded; but she had the New York working-girl’s habit of ‘dressiness’; I am afraid there was powder on her nose. Nevertheless, this girl was reading; and no matter how much the tram jolted or how much other strap-hangers jostled her, she never raised her eyes from her book. Of course I looked over her shoulder. The book was The Divine Fire, from a circulating library.

Mr. Wister thinks that the American Reading Public is fairly represented by the girl at the Philadelphia Library, who refused Tono-Bungay on the ground that it ‘ain’t fresh.’ Well, I shall submit that our representative Public is still better exhibited by the New York working-girl, hanging to a strap at the end of the day’s work, her eyes glued upon one of the ablest novels written in my time.

  1. In the Atlantic for December, 1914.—THE EDITORS.
  2. The spirit of the times seems to have weighed heavily even upon Mr. Meredith Nicholson, who, in the October Atlantic, set out with the apparent intention of defending American literature, but actually devoted most of his space to telling what was the matter with it. — THE AUTHOR.
  3. And similarly as to the single newcomer, produced with an odd air of personal discovery, Mr. Ernest Poole. I might note in passing that the thirteenth edition of The Harbor was advertised on the 7th of August. — THE AUTHOR.
  4. It should be said that Mr. Garnett, who seems so strangely gentle on a comparative rereading, is entirely fair on these points. He asserts, justly I think, the superiority of the English literary environment; but perhaps remembering that ' Victorianism ’ is a British invention, he is careful to state at the outset that ‘ the ordinary English novel is a mediocre affair, truly representative of our middle-class limitations, our dull but honest domesticity, our lack of wit and insensitiveness to form, our dislike of bitter truths, our preference for mild idealism and sentimental solutions’ [italics mine]. Again he says, ‘ In England, of course, as in America, there are bottomless depths in the insatiable appetite of the public for an art of sensational shocks and sentimental twaddle.’ And again, as to the Public: ‘I must admit that the vast majority of our English audience is uncritical in its taste, and that many of our “best-sellers” are also the most poverty-stricken and mediocre in point of vision, form, atmosphere, and style.'—THE AUTHOR.
  5. It is possible that in the passage quoted, Mr. Garnett means to reproach American criticism rather than American readers. If his point thus is that in America the Public leads and conventional criticism follows, I shall leave Mr. Wister to reply to him. — THE AUTHOR.