But these people of mine, whose ultimate destiny I know, walk to it by ways unrevealed to me beforehand. Not only their speech, but what I might call their subsidiary action, seems to be their very own, and I am sometimes startled at the dramatic effect of a word or gesture which would never have occurred to me if I had been pondering over an abstract ‘situation,’ as yet uninhabited by its ‘characters.’
I do not think I can get any nearer than this to the source of my storytelling faculty; I can only say that the process, though it takes place in some secret region on the sheer edge of consciousness, is yet always illuminated by the clear light of my critical attention. What happens there is as real and as tangible as my encounters with my friends and neighbors, often more so, though it is entirely different in quality. It produces in me a great emotional excitement, quite unrelated to the joy or sorrow caused by real happenings, but as intense, and with as great an appearance of reality; and my two lives, divided between these equally real yet totally unrelated worlds, have gone on thus, side by side, equally absorbing, but wholly isolated from each other, ever since in my infancy I ‘read stories’ aloud to myself out of Washington Irving’s Alhambra, which I generally held upside down.
After writing The Valley of Decision, and my book on Italian villas, I felt that I had said my say about Italy, and the idea of attempting a novel of contemporary life in New York began to fascinate me. Still I hesitated. The Valley of Decision was not (in my sense of the term) a novel at all, but only a romantic chronicle, unrolling its episodes like the frescoed legends on the palace walls of its background; my idea of a novel was something very different, something far more compact and centripetal, and I doubted whether I should ever acquire enough constructive power to achieve anything beyond isolated character studies, or the stringing together of picturesque episodes. But my mind was full of my new subject, and, whatever else I was about, I went on, in Tyndall’s brooding phrase, trying to ‘look into it till it became luminous.’
Fate had planted me in New York, and it was always my instinct as a story-teller to use the material nearest to hand, and most familiarly my own. Novelists of my generation must have noticed, in recent years, as one of the unforeseen results of ‘crowd-mentality’ and the general habit of standardizing, that the modern critic requires every novelist to treat the same kind of subject, and relegates to insignificance the author who declines to conform. At present the demand is that only the man with the dinner pail shall be deemed worthy of attention, and fiction is classed according to its degree of conformity to this rule.
There could be no greater critical ineptitude than to judge a novel according to what it ought to have been about. The bigger the imagination, the more powerful the intellectual equipment, the more different subjects will come within the novelist’s reach; and Balzac spread his net over nearly every class and situation in the French social system. As a matter of fact, there are only two essential rules: one, that the novelist should deal only with what is within his reach, literally or figuratively (in most cases the two are synonymous), and the other that the value of a subject depends almost wholly on what the author sees in it, and how deeply he is able to see into it. Almost but not quite; for there are certain subjects too shallow to yield anything to the most searching gaze. I had always felt this, and now my problem was how to make use of a subject—fashionable New York—which, of all others, seemed most completely to fall within the condemned category. There it was before me, in all its flatness and futility, asking to be dealt with as the theme most available to my hand, since I had been steeped in it from infancy, and should not have to get it up out of notebooks and encyclopædias—and yet!