The Unfailing Charm of Some Novels

I

I EMPHASIZE the word ‘some.’ I do not say that all novels have charm. I am aware that there is a severe school of novelists who would resent this idea. They insist that they do not aim to please us, but rather to show us life in all its drab reality. And if anything has to be sacrificed, it will not be the drabness.

Once people in the attempt to praise a history or biography would say, ‘It is as fascinating as a novel.’ And moralists would warn the young against works of fiction by saying that they made sin alluring. The novelists of the ultraserious school are not open to this accusation. They not only do not make sin alluring — they see to it that nothing is alluring.

To those who prefer to take their fiction thus sadly, I have nothing to say. But most of us, I am sure, prefer that a novel should have charm. The question then arises, In what does the charm consist?

Why is it that we take up one novel that may be very carefully written, but it makes no particular impression upon us? Very soon we forget, all about it. We take up another and it is a happy experience, so happy that from time to time we repeat it.

There are books which are never exhausted. We feel of them as did Keats of

All lovely tales that we have heard or read:
An endless fountain of immortal drink.
Pouring unto us from the heaven’s brink.

What is the secret of charm? Many people take it for granted that it lies in the subject which the author chooses. There are novels which deal with pleasant subjects and others with subjects that are gloomy or repellent. A novel may be realistic or romantic or historical. I t may deal with business or sex or politics, with low life or with high life. But in none of these things lies the secret of charm. The charm, if it exists at all, must be sought in only one place — the author’s own mind.

The word ‘fiction’ tells its own story. It is literally something made. Who makes it? Obviously the author. What does he make it out of? Out of materials which he finds in his own mind. His work is a figment of his imagination. Its value depends on the kind of imagination that he happens to have.

What a novelist does is to invite me to make a pleasure excursion through the more interesting portions of his own mind. If the day is fine, I accept the invitation. I am in holiday humor and am prepared for all kinds of haps and mishaps. He is not showing me my world — I can see that for myself. He is showing me his world. It is the world that is created by his imagination. If what he has to offer is n’t worth seeing, he can’t shift the responsibility for its dullness and dreariness on the universe. It is he who is dull and dreary, not the subject he chooses.

Let us carry the analysis a little further. We say that a novel is the work of creative imagination. What does the novelist create in order to charm us? It is not enough to create a character; he must also create a world in which that character can move about freely. Here is where many clever novelists fail. They analyze a single character, but they do not make us realize the world that is behind it and around it. It is a picture without a background. The character is like the contents of a thermos bottle — kept cold because it is surrounded by a vacuum. Now in real life no person is seen apart from his environment. His feet are on the earth; there is air for him to breathe, friends and enemies to meet; and they are as real as he is.

We say of some novels that they are without atmosphere. That suggests something in regard to the writer’s mind, not only as to the quality of it, but as to the quantity of it. We are told that the reason why the moon has n’t any atmosphere to speak of is that it is n’t big enough to hold what atmosphere it once had. The power of its gravitation is not enough to keep the airy particles from flying off into space. It is the same with the mind.

The atmosphere of many novels is murky and there is low visibility. The author has to explain his meaning or we lose it. The great novelist has a sense of space. He is carefree. He can afford to let his characters alone. He does n’t nag them.

Then too there must be space in which the characters that are created may freely move about. This necessity is overlooked by those who are interested chiefly in the analysis of character. A single person taken out of his natural environment may be studied and his reactions noted. A laboratory, if properly equipped, need not be very roomy. But it takes more space if a person is to live and bring up a family.

II

The mind of the novelist must have amplitude. His mind is the sky, ‘than all it holds more vast, more high.’ Beneath the ferment of the writer’s mind the beings whom he has created live and act, each after his own kind, but we see them always as a part of something greater than themselves. Says the Hebrew sage, ‘He hath set the world in their heart.’ The great novelist is not so much a man of the world as a man in whom the world is. In his wide, comprehending intelligence there is for everything a season, and he hath made everything beautiful in its time.

It is one thing to see a wild animal in a cage in a menagerie. It is another thing to see it in its native habitat. We do not see men and women realistically till we see them where they belong, working out their destinies unconscious of any alien observer. Each says, like the Shunammite woman, ‘I dwell among mine own people.’

The matter of sufficient mind space is likely to be neglected by the writer of problem novels. When a novelist takes a problem that is too big for him, he is likely to become peevish. When at the end of his book the problem is unsolved, he dismisses it in a petulant way: ‘There, I’ve done my best, and you see what a mess we are in. There is n’t any way out.’

But, after all, the situation may not be so bad as it seems to him. Perhaps the problem is not so much an individual problem as a social problem, and he has not given its larger aspects any attention. There must be time and space for any true solution. It is only when the big problem gets into a too contracted mind that the case seems desperate. It thrashes about like a whale stranded in a shallow bay. What the whale needs is not a friendly visitor to give it advice. It demands less sand and more sea room. And what the moral problem needs is more mind room than the author is possessed of.

It was the lack of sufficiently broad background that, in my judgment, prevented Samuel Butler’s Way of All Flesh from being a really great novel. The author had a thesis. He was intent on proving that the family is an institution that is not what it is cracked up to be. He is irritated by his discovery of domestic infelicities. Now it is not a new discovery that sons do not always honor their fathers and mothers, not to say their uncles and their aunts. This was known to ancient historians.

The writers who are able to enlist the interest of successive generations are those who are able to invest familiar scenes with a charm which belongs to their own natures. We have the sense that the mind of the writer is bigger than the thing he is writing about. We are made to see in a new light things which we had despised.

That a certain town is dull I can well believe. But that it can be amusingly dull, deliciously dull, with all manner of delicate variations in its dullness, is a delightful discovery. It takes the genius of Jane Austen to make us see this.

This matter of mental roominess is comparative; it consists of a due proportion in the parts. In order to have charm it is not necessary that the author’s mind should be big enough to take in the whole world, but it must be big enough to take in the people and the society of which he writes, and to allow the characters considerable elbow room. There was Anthony Trollope. He could hardly be called a great novelist, but he created an atmosphere. A more worldly-minded set of people than the Trollopians it would be hard to find. They were chock-full of prejudices, they were narrow-minded, and most of them were undeniably smug. Their ideas about religion and politics were conventional to the last degree, and yet we enjoy their acquaintance. They do not get on one’s nerves. There is a certain congruousness between them and their environment. There is an atmosphere of good-natured worldliness that covers a multitude of sins. Trollope was not a great novelist, but his mind at any rate was bigger than any of his characters. It was roomy enough to contain a whole society without crowding. These people were under no constraint; they were perfectly at home.

Thackeray, to one who belongs to his cult, produces the same impression. To be sure, he likes to interrupt his characters in order to give his own opinion. But he does this as the moderator in the town meeting, who leaves the chair to give his fellow townsmen a piece of his mind. When he takes the floor he is no longer moderator. So when Thackeray indulges in one of his asides we do not think of him as the author of Vanity Fair, but as one of the characters in it.

The novelists who have power to charm us always have a good-natured ease in the presence of their subject. They have a large tolerance for human imperfectness, like the good curate: —

. . . When religious sects ran mad,
He held, in spite of all his learning,
That if a man’s belief is bad,
It will not be improved by burning.

III

Just now we have a school of American novelists who seem to have a grievance. America, instead of being a stimulus to their imagination, seems to be an incubus. It is just a little more than they can bear.

What kind of country is this we live in? I confess that when I take a little journey across this continent I always return with a sense of exhilaration. For one thing, there is so much of it — and it is n’t finished. When I take up books of a serious nature, — sober histories, tables of statistics, bank clearances, reports of scientific and philanthropic societies, city-planning boards, — I get the impression that a great many things need to be improved, but that there are vast numbers of eager and right-minded people on the job.

When I listen to the earnest exhortations of moral reformers, I get the impression that this is a country where sin aboundeth. But it is possible that ‘where sin aboundeth, grace doth much more abound.’

It is only when I turn to what used to be called ‘light literature’ that clouds settle down and deep depression comes upon my spirits. A group of talented writers are intent on showing up their less talented fellow citizens. To this end they give us studies of life in the American small town, on the farm, and in the crowded city. Over the gateway of each community we see the inscription, ‘All hope abandon, ye who enter here.’ Life is shown to be not only commonplace, but hopelessly, irremediably commonplace. We have a desolating sense of moral aridity, undue nervous tension, morbid selfconsciousness, a fear of public opinion, a dearth of private opinion, a furtive interest in the forbidden, a fierce absorption in business, a futile gregariousness in the pursuit of pseudoculture. The small town is treated as if it were a disease. The city is a complication of diseases.

Is this realism? Yes, in the sense that the picture of the fauna of Africa in the old-fashioned geography book was realistic. There, crowded upon a single page, were all the animals of the dark continent, — lions, elephants, gorillas, hippopotamuses, crocodiles, jackals, — all terrible to behold; while, as if to emphasize their terrors, there was a pacifistic giraffe looking down upon them with a futile smile, as much as to say, ‘It’s a pity that these wild beasts are so bloodthirsty, but that’s the way they are made.’ But the small boy who got his ideas of the continent from the picture would be unduly alarmed. All these animals could be found in Africa, but they were not all in one place. Africa is a large country, and there are sections where a person could walk for a whole day without running much risk of being eaten up by a lion.

To picture a stupid, weak, commonplace character may show artistic skill, but the work fails if the impression is conveyed that everybody is that way. A picture must have light and shade, and they must be properly arranged to be a work of art.

Don’t you think Main Street was very realistic? Yes, and so was Babbitt, and so is Elmer Gantry. But they are presented without charm. The trouble is really in Mr. Sinclair Lewis’s mind. He is not able to look at them humorously and understandingly. He is fidgety. One feels as one does at a dinner party when it is evident that all is not going well with the hostess and she is not able to conceal her uneasiness.

When I first took up Main Street I was prepared to enjoy the people. I knew they would be just ordinary people. But I could n’t enjoy their idiosyncrasies when I saw how Mr. Sinclair Lewis felt about them. He evidently thought that such a place as Gopher Prairie ought not to exist. He was acutely conscious of its manifold shortcomings. It did not appreciate what it ought to have appreciated, and it appreciated that which it ought not to have appreciated, and there was no health in it. Just as I was trying to get on good terms with the community, I would look up and see Mr. Sinclair Lewis fidgeting and saying to himself, ‘Is n’t it too bad! No art, no manners, no spontaneity, no free intelligence, no cosmopolitan culture — just Main Street.’

Then I turn to Henry Fielding. It happens that none of these fine things are in the world Fielding created for our enjoyment. To most of his characters Gopher Prairie would seem a modern Athens, a lofty intellectual centre pulsating with sensibility. Squire Western and Tow-wouse, the innkeeper, and their boon companions cared for none of these things. Had a high-strung young woman, recently graduated from a state university, landed among these hearty, nonintellectual folks and attempted to improve their minds, she would have longed for the more appreciative society of Main Street. It never occurred to any of Fielding’s folks that they should be improved. Their prejudices could not be weeded out by a newly married lady recently arrived among them. They were too deeply rooted in the nature of things — their things. The minister of the First Church on Main Street might not be an intellectual giant or a man of great refinement, but he would seem so in comparison with Fielding’s Parson Trulliber.

His voice was loud and hoarse, and his accent extremely broad. To complete the whole, he had a stateliness in his gait, when he walked, not unlike that of a goose.

We are made to see Trulliber as he was in the bosom of his family: —

Mr. Trulliber being informed that somebody wanted to speak with him, immediately slipped off his apron, and clothed himself in an old night-gown, being the dress in which he always saw his company at home. . . . He laid violent hands on Adams, and dragged him into the hog-sty, which was indeed but two steps from his parlour-window. They were no sooner arrived there, than he cried out, ‘Do but handle them: step in, friend: art welcome to handle them, whether dost buy or no.’ At which words, opening the gate, he pushed Adams into a pig-sty, insisting on it that he should handle them before he would talk one word with him.

Adams had come on business unconnected with hogs, but that made no difference. Trulliber is all that a clergyman ought not to be, yet somehow, seeing his burly figure in the pigpen where he belongs, one is not depressed inspirits. Trulliber is Trulliber, and I am more amused than offended when he rejects Parson Adams’s attempt to improve him.

‘Dost preach to me?’ replied Trulliber: ‘dost pretend to instruct me in my duty? ... I would not advise thee,’ says Trulliber, ‘to say that I am no Christian: I won’t take it of you; for I believe I am as good a man as thyself.’

I do not fret over Trulliber when I see him as a part of Fielding’s ample world. He is a blot on the landscape, but fortunately it is a large and smiling landscape and can stand a good many such blots.

We are out of doors in a pleasant English countryside. We meet all sorts of people. Most of them have little refinement, but they have a heartiness that is refreshing. We trudge along in all weathers. We stop at inns where there are usually some adventures. We meet strangers who suddenly become confidential.

Squire Western would be intolerable anywhere else, but we enjoy seeing him as he goes storming over his broad acres. He belongs there, and he knows it, and so do his dependents. And we like to hear him talk. It is n’t every day that we can get so close to a coarse country squire of the eighteenth century.

As to his daughter Sophia, she has her sore trials, but she is a buxom creature blessed with good health. When, under great provocation and in accordance with the fashion of the day, she faints, she is well looked after. ‘Mrs. Western and a great number of servants soon came to the assistance of Sophia, with water, cordials, and everything necessary on those occasions.’ In a few minutes she was as well as ever. This is as it should be.

In Fielding’s world they had hard knocks, but great power of recuperation. There was always plenty of fresh air, and a refreshing sense of fair play. This goes a long way in keeping everyone in good condition. When we are tired of problems, there is pleasure in looking over Fielding’s chapter headings: —

An apology for all heroes who have good stomachs.
A friendly conversation in a kitchen.
A dialogue between the landlady and Susan the chambermaid.
The adventure of a beggar-man.

This is not high life, but we are in good company so long as we are with Henry Fielding.

IV

To reveal this ever-changing world is the task of genius.

What Fielding did for the English countryside of the eighteenth century and Chaucer did for the England of the fourteenth century, Cervantes did for Spain in the sixteenth century, Walter Scott did for his own Scotland, Dickens did for the England of the nineteenth century, Victor Hugo did for Revolutionary France, Tolstoy did for the pre-revolutionary Russia, Joseph Conrad did for the seas.

They did more than analyze or describe individuals — they created, or rather re-created, the times in which these people lived.

Dickens is an example of the way in which the limitations of a writer’s own mind affect his power to portray character. Dickens was a humorist, but first of all he was an Englishman. He loved his country and understood its people. He loved to prowl around in the dark places of London and make the acquaintance of queer and shabby people. He understood them well enough to know that they had pleasures as well as sorrows of their own. Their idiosyncrasies do not irritate us. We see them through the atmosphere of humorous tolerance. There were all kinds of Englishmen, but England was a very interesting place to live in.

But when Dickens crossed the Atlantic and attempted to find literary material in America, a change came over his spirit. He was no longer at ease. He felt as the old prophet felt when he was considering the sins of people he did n’t like — ‘By day and by night: and it shall be a vexation only to understand t he report. For the bed is shorter than that a man can stretch himself on it: and the covering narrower than that he can wrap himself in it.’

Martin Chuzzlewit lands in New York and travels to Eden on the Mississippi. In spite of all the efforts of Mark Tapley to be jolly under all circumstances, there is not a single pleasant adventure. The circumstances are too much for them. It is a land where every prospect displeases and man becomes more vile as they go west. What a vulgar lot of people they meet — the reporters of the Rowdy Journal, the Honorable Jefferson Brick, Mr. La Fayette Kettle, Mrs. Hominy, and the rest.

Yet, when we come to think about it, they were no more vulgar than the people Dickens was familiar with at home. The manners of the Podsnaps, the Todgers, the Micawbers, were not above reproach. The difference was that he found the vulgar Englishman amusing, but the vulgar American was odious.

When Mr. Boffin acquires a sudden competence, we sympathize with him in his desire to attain culture with equal celerity by employing a literary gentleman with a wooden leg to read to him.

But Martin Chuzzlewit has no tolerance for the efforts of Mrs. Jefferson Brick to improve her mind gregariously by going to lectures on the Philosophy of the Soul on Wednesday, the Philosophy of Crime on Monday, the Philosophy of Government on Tuesday, and the Philosophy of Vegetables on Friday.

On hearing this laudable programme, Alartin was plunged into melancholy. ‘As soon as Alartin was left alone . . . he felt so thoroughly dejected and worn out, that he even lacked the energy to crawl upstairs to bed.’ Yet Mrs. Jefferson Brick had her good points; only Dickens could not see them. He was too homesick.

How pleasant in England to obscure the incongruities between the names of things and the realities! Not so on the Mississippi. When New Thermopylae turns out to be lacking in classic grace, we find that it is not only a calamity but an insult. Mrs. Hominy had no right to speak of it in such glowing terms.

It was almost night when they came alongside the landing-place, — a steep bank with an hotel, like a barn, on the top of it; a wooden store or two; and a few scattered sheds.

‘You sleep here to-night, and go on in the morning, I suppose, ma’am,’ said Martin.

‘Where should I go on to?’ cried the mother of the modern Gracchi.

‘To New Thermopylæ.'

‘My! Ain’t I there?’ said Mrs. Hominy.

Martin looked for it all round the darkening panorama; but he could n’t see it, and was obliged to say so.

’Why, that’s it!’ cried Mrs. Hominy, pointing to the sheds just mentioned.

‘That!’ exclaimed Martin.

Let us take an English scene and compare the impression with that of an American scene.

Supper was not yet over, when there arrived at the Jolly Sandboys two more travellers, bound for the same haven as the rest, who had been walking in the rain for some hours, and came in shining and heavy with water. One of these was the proprietor of a giant and a little lady without legs or arms, who had jogged forward in a van, the other, a silent gentleman who earned his living by showing tricks upon the cards, and who had rather deranged the natural expression of his countenance by putting small leaden lozenges into his eyes and bringing them out at his mouth, which was one of his professional accomplishments. The name of the first of the new-comers was Vuffin; the other, probably as a pleasant satire upon his ugliness, was called Sweet William. To render them as comfortable as he could, the landlord bestirred himself nimbly, and in a very short time both gentlemen were perfectly at their ease.

And so are we — and it is Dickens who puts us at our ease. We at once make ourselves at home and it occurs to us that it is a rare opportunity to sit here in the bar and listen to Mr. Vuffin and his friend talk shop.

Mr. Vuffin, it appears, has a giant who has outlived his usefulness. He thinks it better business to carry him about in his van, without exhibiting, than to turn him off.

‘It’s better that than letting ’em go upon the parish or about the streets,’ said Mr. Vuffin. ‘Once make a giant common, and giants will never draw again. Look at wooden legs. If there was only one man with a wooden leg, what a property he’d be! ’

‘So he would!’ observed the landlord and Short both together. ‘ That’s very true.’

‘Instead of which,’ pursued Mr. Vuffin, ‘if you was to advertise Shakespeare played entirely by wooden legs, it’s my belief you would n’t draw a sixpence.’

‘I don’t suppose you would,’ said Short. And the landlord said so too. . . .

While Mr. Vuffin and his two friends smoked their pipes and beguiled the time with such conversation as this, the silent gentleman sat in a warm corner, swallowing, or seeming to swallow, six-pennyworth of half-pence for practice . . . without paying any regard whatever to the company.

They were certainly not a highly intellectual company — but somehow we get the general impression of good cheer. Even the silent gentleman who was practising his art was enjoying himself according to his lights.

Compare this with the scene on the steamboat which is carrying Martin Chuzzlewit to Eden on the Mississippi.

On, through the weary day and melancholy night, beneath the burning sun, and in the mist and vapor of the evening; on, until return appeared impossible, and restoration to their home a miserable dream. They had now but few people on board; and these few were as flat, as dull and stagnant, as the vegetation that oppressed their eyes. No sound of cheerfulness or hope was heard; no pleasant talk beguiled the tardy time; no little group made common cause against the dull depression of the scene. But that, at certain periods, they swallowed food together from a common trough, it might have been old Charon’s boat, conveying melancholy shades to judgment.

We can think of Dickens escaping from the melancholy company in the cabin of the Mississippi steamboat and standing on the deck as the boat scraped across the mud bars and the man casting the lead called out, ‘Mark three! Mark twain!' It was a doleful sound.

But there was a boy about that time sprawling on the banks of that great river who found it a mighty interesting place. To be a pilot on a Mississippi River steamboat seemed the pinnacle of human greatness. When he made his first voyage, he was intoxicated by the talk.

All pilots are tireless talkers, when gathered together, and as they talk only about the river they are always understood and are always interesting. Your true pilot cares nothing about any thing on earth but the river, and his pride in his occupation surpasses the pride of kings.

They went on talk-talk-talking. Meantime, the thing that was running in my mind was, ‘Now, if my ears hear aright, I have not only to get the names of all the towns and islands and bends, and so on, by heart, but I must get up a warm personal acquaintanceship with every old snag and onelimbed cotton-wood and obscure woodpile that ornaments the banks of this river for twelve hundred miles; and more than that, I must actually know where these things are in the dark. . . .’

‘My boy,’ said Mr. Bixby, ‘there’s only one way to be a pilot, and that is to get this entire river by heart.’

It was a whole world of romance that opened up to the Missouri boy as he heard the leadsman repeating, ‘M-a-r-k three! M-a-r-k three! Quarter-lessthree! Half twain! Quarter twain! M-a-r-k twain! ’

That Dickens found the Mississippi River steamboat and its passengers inexpressibly dreary and dull, and that Mark Twain found in the same place and among the same people rollicking humor and dry wit and the spirit of adventure, does not prove that Mark Twain had more humor. It only proves that he was more at home.

Mr. Bixby’s maxim that to be a pilot on the Mississippi one must get the whole river by heart and get up a warm personal acquaintance with every old snag and woodpile applies to the novelist. It is not enough that he can describe one particular sand bar on which his characters are stranded. He must know the river, and understand the great currents, and sympathize with the people who are floating upon the stream. He must see each part in relation to the whole.

V

Homer tells us that in the camp on the Trojan plain there was an illfavored, sharp-tongued Greek named Thersites. He was an unpopular character and deservedly so. He spent his time in speaking scornfully of the heroes and belittling their exploits. If Thersites had been a literary man his remarks would have made good copy. The Iliad of Thersites would have been considered spicy.

Shakespeare amused himself by imagining how the Homeric heroes would have been described by the vitriolic critics. Thersites is made to express himself in the sixteenth-century language of vituperation.

Agamemnon — ’an honest fellow enough, and one that loves quails; but he has not so much brains as ear-wax.’

Diomedes — ‘a false-hearted rogue, a most unjust knave. I will no more trust him when he leers than I will a serpent when he hisses.’

Patroclus — ‘male varlet. . . .How the poor world is pestered with such waterflies, diminutives of nature!’

Ajax — ‘thou sodden-witted lord! Thou hast no more brain than I have in mine elbows. . . . Thou scurvy valiant ass!’

Achilles and Ajax — ‘Hector shall have a great catch, if he knock out either of your brains. He were as good crack a fusty nut with no kernel.’

So runs the Iliad of Thersites. But successive generations have preferred the Iliad of Homer. The old poet created a world and filled it with gods and godlike men. Here his heroes moved about freely. We are made to see the windy plain of Troy. We see the little ships that had sailed over perilous seas. We hear the Olympian laughter from distant mountain tops. When we hear Achilles saying, ‘How many misty mountains and what resounding seas separate me from my dear native land,’ the distance must be measured by Homer’s standard and not ours. We must not remark smugly that an airplane could cover the distance in three quarters of an hour. On the other hand, we must remember that fardarting Apollo had facilities of travel more rapid than our own. To enjoy Homer’s heroes we must see them in Homer’s world.

And if there is to be a great American novel, it must arise in the mind of a great American. His mind must be large enough to take in the real America. It must have wide spaces in which all sorts and conditions of men may have room to live and grow. It must have a wide hospitality for that which is still hopefully unfinished. It must have curiosity, humor, and audacity. It must have appreciation for that which is still in the rough. It must have heroes of its own and its peculiar kind of hero worship. One thing we may be sure of—it will be the work of an American Homer and not of an American Thersites.