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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical Introduction by Henry Walcott Boynton (1869–1947)

By Fiction in the Early Twentieth Century

EVERY age is in some sense an age of reaction as well as of transition. The literature of our own period—of, say, the past quarter-century—has undergone uncommonly quick and violent changes of mood and method and content. Poetry has found new wings or, at worst, new legs. Philosophy has warmed itself at new fires. And fiction has given extremely vigorous if not enduring expression to a multitude of current reactions, whether moral, æsthetic, or social. Certainly the novel has been, for the moment, at least, the most widely heard voice of revolt. For better or worse, it has become more than ever before an organ, a vehicle. All sorts of people have made use of it, or of its trappings, for all sorts of ends. This has been true in France, and equally true in England and America. Side by side with an increasingly general if vague theory of the novel as a dignified form of art goes our practice of it as a handy conveyance of opinion or weapon of controversy or engine of attack. Mr. H. G. Wells is, among other things, a very skillful story-teller, but he deliberately uses the form of the story for the purposes of a treatise or a tract. Mr. Winston Churchill was, I think, born with the real knack, but he is losing it as he gains the habit of enouncing his perfectly honest but not immensely profound theories. And even Mr. John Galsworthy, who is notable for his use of the novel as a true form of art, a form involving careful construction and just balance, is hardly less notable for his insistent expression of a central idea—the idea of protest, of revolt. But in the end we must believe that the novelist of purpose is to be commiserated only when he fails to make his narrative embody his purpose. He must be able to tell a story which by sheer force and poignancy shall bring home his fact or his theory. Too often, in practice, his pages are occupied by himself, speaking in his own person upon the theme with which his mind is really far more occupied than it is with the fortunes of his human exemplars.

Unluckily, it is hard in practice to distinguish an idea from an abstract theory, or a personal prejudice, or a poetic fancy, or a fact recorded, or a mere notion. But certainly, as far as we can detach them, most of the serious ideas in current fiction seem to be based on protest. This, of course, is the natural thing. Modernism is always first of all a reaction against the smug and orderly past,—a search for reality, a “return to nature.” Therefore the current British novel of ideas is anti-Victorian or anti-Georgian first and (perhaps) something else next. It has a great contempt for the immediate past as a thing which is done, and a great hatred for it as a thing which has imposed itself upon the present. It loathes the nineteenth century for having valued and fostered and passed on those qualities which it most despises—convention, respectability, the middle class virtues. Mr. Wells, for example, is a prophet; but his glorious future, like most glorious futures, hangs upon a demolished past. Things are wrong,—smash them! Then, perhaps, we may take measures towards building up again. The “mind of the race” exists, but half enslaved: it is bound to express itself fully when once it has made sure of its freedom. How pitifully, after all the centuries, we remain tied to empty forms! Religion,—how ineffectual; government,—how clumsy; the attitude of age towards youth,—how futile; marriage,—how deadly in its possibilities! And, alas, the whole question of sex,—how crucial, how absorbing, how absorbent of all other questions that exist under the canopy!

For there seems to exist some strange law which ordains that persons who try to turn the novel into a vehicle for theories of art or philosophy or conduct shall almost invariably end in the more or less single-minded celebration of sex. There, it would seem, is the one indubitably common ground upon which all schools, all factions, may meet. It is as a commentary on sex that the work of the French and Russian naturalists, and of imitators like Mr. George Moore and Mr. Theodore Dreiser, takes on some aspects of intelligibility. One sphere of human experience these writers are sure of—the sphere of physical sensation and its immediate reactions; and consequently, for them, life is pretty well included in that sphere. A brilliant current essayist and spokesman of the “new” experimental criticism, Mr. John Cowper Powys, has some very frank words on this head. Among his literary gods are Rousseau, Oscar Wilde, and Remy de Gourmont. He takes the modern Frenchman very seriously as a critic and philosopher.

  • “The whole philosophical attitude of Remy de Gourmont,” he says, “is full of interest and significance for those who are watching the deeper movements of European thought. At one, in a limited sense, with Bergson and William James in their protests against final or ‘static’ truth, de Gourmont’s writings, when taken as a whole, form a most salutary and valuable counterpoise to the popular and vulgar implications of this modern mysticism.”
  • A philosopher, it seems: what then is the basis of his philosophy? Mr. Powys presently tells us:
  • “Never for a single moment in all his writings are we allowed to forget the essential wonder and mystery of sex. Sex, in all its caprices and eccentricities, in all its psychological masks and ritualistic symbols, interests him ultimately more than anything else. Remy de Gourmont would have sex and sex-emotions, put frankly into the foreground of everything, as far as art and letters are concerned.”
  • And so, it seems, would Mr. Powys and many of his contemporaries.

    Continental influences have been largely responsible for the spread of this sort of doctrine among critics and story-tellers of the English-speaking races. The Latins and the Slavs have never been hampered in the practice of art by considerations of the “young person.” Whether, as critics like Mr. Powys think, this has worked altogether to the advantage of their art, is a question about which some doubt remains. Sex-freedom, with these continental writers, and especially with the novelists, has too often borne the fruits of sex-obsession. Men of fine genius, like Gabriele d’Annunzio, Théophile Gautier, Guy de Maupassant, have produced work after work which, with all their magnificence of form, lacked the final quality of a great and sane art by reason of the same unwholesome preoccupation with one aspect of life which colored all the labors of the critic de Gourmont. It might be more instructive than edifying if some inspired statistician were to tabulate for us the part played by sexual curiosity and incitement, in the public patronage of novels possessing genuine literary merit which have been published during the past twenty years. Surely, more than one author of serious purpose must have been humiliated by a sense of the meretricious nature of a sudden popularity won by exceptional frankness upon the perennial theme. The pursuit of “realism” has involved special risk of this sort. “The real facts of life” is a phrase which has seemed too often to be in reality nothing better than an euphemism for the risky or dreary side of sex. There are, after all, a great many other things in the world.

    The influence of French and Russian naturalism upon the novel in English has been very marked in recent years, though more subtly than of old. We are now less likely to catch the actual echoes of foreign idioms than we were in the nineties, when the new brew had gone a little to the head of English and American customers. In ‘The Pit’ or ‘The Octopus’ of Frank Norris, for example, along with the Zolaesque method of ruthlessly literal description, we often found a Gallic rhythm or even phrase which seemed a strange enough medium for the expression of the author’s determined Americanism. Now and then we find such a rhythm in later English writers, notably and naturally in the work of Joseph Conrad, or, as it seems, less naturally in the work of some younger novelist like D. H. Lawrence. With George Moore, of course, the French influence has from first to last been dominant. Mr. Arnold Bennett has recorded, with his usual candor and self-mockery, the models upon which, in the “Yellow-booky” days of the mid-nineties, his first novel was deliberately based. The passage is worth quoting for its summary of those external traits of Gallic and Slavic fiction which, as our century came in, were imposing themselves upon English literature:

  • “So I sat down to write my first novel, under the sweet influences of the de Goncourts, Turgenev, Flaubert, and de Maupassant. It was to be entirely unlike all English novels except those of one author, whose name I shall not mention now, for the reason that I have aforetime made my admiration of that author very public. I clearly remember that the purpose uppermost in my mind was to imitate what I may call the physical characteristics of French novels. There were to be no poetical quotations in my novel, no titles to the chapters; the narrative was to be divided irregularly into sections by Roman numerals only and it was indispensable that a certain proportion of these should begin or end abruptly. As thus, for a beginning:—‘Gerald suddenly changed the conversation, and taking the final match from his match-box at last agreed to light a cigar.’ And for an ending:—‘Her tremulous eyes sought his; breathing a sigh she murmured …’ O succession of dots, charged with significance vague but tremendous, there were to be hundreds of you in my novel, because you play so important a part in the literature of the country of Victor Hugo and M. Loubet! So much for the physical characteristics. To come nearer to the soul of it, my novel was to be a mosaic consisting exclusively of Flaubert’s mots justes—it was to be mots justes composed into the famous écriture artiste of the de Goncourts. The sentences were to perform the trick of the ‘rise and fall.’ The adjectives were to have color, the verbs were to have color, and perhaps it was a sine qua non that even the pronouns should be prismatic—I forget. And all these effects were to be gained without the slightest sacrifice of truth. There was to be no bowing in the house of the Rimmon of sentimentality. Life being gray, sinister, and melancholy, my novel must be gray, sinister, and melancholy. As a matter of fact, life deserved none of these epithets; I was having a very good time; but at twenty-seven one is captious, and liable to err in judgment.”
  • It is interesting to note that this was written in 1903, and that much of it might seem to have had satirical reference to ‘The Old Wives’ Tales,’ which was not written till five years later. In Mr. Bennett’s solider work, the ‘Tale,’ and the ‘Clayhanger’ trilogy, the Continental influence is unmistakably strong.

    What, then, is the nature of this influence, and how has it established itself? It is primarily an influence, as all English readers vaguely know, exerted in the name of “realism.” The Russians in particular we have been exhorted to admire without bounds, for their pioneer work in this field. And yet I think the normal English reader finds himself pretty uncomfortable in contact with many of these trumpeted masterpieces. He may apply himself to Dostoyevsky or Artsybashev with the best will in the world, and yet bring little away from them but a sense of futile nightmare. This experience has been nowhere more satisfactorily explained than by Professor Warner Fite, in a little paper called ‘The Rejection of Consciousness,’ in which the so-called new realism in philosophy and art is shown to be a pseudo-science based upon a purely naturalistic theory.

  • “The new realism is philosophy in the pose of natural science. If we return to the realistic novel, we find art in a similar pose. The roman experimental is fiction equipped with all the apparatus of scientific method, a technological vocabulary, a carefully compiled list of facts (only the bibliography of sources is wanting), a disavowal of all theoretical preconception, and a sublime contempt for all human interests—with the honorable exception of sex…. Historically, the realistic novel is a protest against the older romantic novel with the happy ending—which was always the reward of virtue. The romantic happy ending was due, however, less to the natural productiveness of virtue than to some rather irrelevant beneficence on the part of nature or the social order. Now, such a consummation implies that the world is a moral order; indeed, a supernatural order. Yet the supernatural is not finally disposed of by the elimination of happy chance. What if, by the exercise of moral courage, intelligence, and foresight, virtue may produce its own reward? This implies the efficiency of consciousness. And this, as I have suggested, is still, from a standpoint strictly naturalistic, to admit the supernatural.
  • “Accordingly, in the strictly scientific novel, consciousness is made ineffective. Either the characters are preternaturally stupid, like the husband of Madame Bovary (and French husbands in general), or they are persons of unusual intelligence whose powers of action are obstructed by introspection. In Russian realism it seems that everyone who is not a clod is, like Turgenev’s chance acquaintance, a Hamlet—‘of the District Tschigri’ or some other district. Dmitri Roudine is uncertain whether he is hero or a humbug. Neschdanoff, in ‘Virgin Soil,’ is a nihilist who discovers in the end that nihilism is merely æsthetic. Even honest Bezukhov, in Tolstoy’s ‘War and Peace,’ is haunted by a constant sense of not meaning what he says. All this may perhaps be true of Russian character. But it seems that in English realism intelligence is similarly inefficient, and indeed especially prone to disaster. Hardy’s ‘Return of the Native,’ for example, is a tragedy of seemingly trivial errors. The dominant note of literary realism is the helplessness of man before the accidents of events; and in the realistic world, events always go wrong.”
  • And these Slavic heroes are too often clod or Hamlet in a wanton mood; sure at least of the body and its demands, though for the rest living in a world of vivid hallucination, of intensely feeble or intensely shameful illusion. These characteristics of the naturalistic novel have not grown less marked until very recent years. Gogol, known as the father of Russian realism, never himself finally discarded “consciousness.” ‘Dead Souls’ itself was a work of rich humor, not of vague comment, and ‘Taras Bulba’ was unmistakably an epic romance. Tolstoy and Turgenev never held themselves strictly to the naturalistic grindstone,—might at any time betray their sense of character, of truth inherent in and more or less successfully controlling fact. In Dostoyevsky the method fairly takes possession. Read, for example, ‘A Raw Youth,’ which has recently been translated by Mrs. Garnett. Two figures may, with some pains, be detached from the tangle of details which fills these pages, a father and a son. The father is a sort of splendid child, good-humored, ardent, and utterly without consistency or responsibility. The son, in default of a character which he could not well inherit, is endowed with an immense and defiant egotism. He has no inkling of a humane or magnanimous view of life, his purpose is merely to win a shallow and spectacular success—himself against the world. Out of the long rigmarole of the narrative, there does emerge a vivid sense of certain bodily and temperamental presences. Nightmare is once more the word that suggests itself, however, in connection with this vividness. The higher realism of character in action is almost totally lacking. But for two women who stand out strangely from the context, we might put the book down wondering (as we may have wondered even in closing ‘The Brothers Karamazov’) whether the author does not really believe character itself to be the great hallucination.

    One or two of Dostoyevsky’s successors seem to carry us even farther into the morass. Gorky, it is true, shows the Russian mysticism as well as the Russian despair of the present. In ‘The Confession,’ one of his most recently translated works, we have Gorky in a nutshell. His central figure here is a peasant boy of unknown paternity, who gropes his way through the filth of everyday experience and the false glamor of formal religion, to a religion of humanity, a healing belief in the People as the creators or embodiment of divinity. It is only in such moments of vision that Gorky rises above the Father Anthony of his story: “He clothed life in gray, showed it to me as something insane, and people for him were only a herd of crazy swine who were dashing to the abyss with varying rapidity.” As for the peasant Hamlet of the book, he, like his creator, is saved from despair only by mysticism. Intellect merely tortures him: “My thoughts,” he says, with his painful ingenuousness, “were like water-hens in a puddle, jumping from stump to stump.”

    No mysticism tempers the despair of Artsybashev, in his hopelessly gloomy review of the human fact. In ‘Sanine’ he conveys the impression of a force often morbid and brutal, but still a force. In ‘Breaking-Point’ we feel nothing but a sort of hysterical impotence. It is a disheartening example of the frantic and unfruitful pessimism to which Russian naturalism is capable of descending. And this nightmare of lust and despair and death is the more dreadful because of the intellectual energy which has been ruthlessly devoted to its weaving. The persons themselves, a galley of lost souls, harrow us because, despite their manias, their vices, their paltriness of conduct, we cannot quite turn away from them as inhuman. And their humanity is not that of piteous ignorance. They think, they philosophize, their minds torture them with the consciousness of their own enormity. And the upshot of all their thinking is that life has no distinguishable meaning, and the sooner one is rid of it the better! Another despairing Slav of this school is the Pole Przybyszewski. In his ‘Homo Sapiens,’ as in the ‘Breaking-Point’ of Artsybashev, we have the fated “temperament” as the true hero. Here once more the intimate relations of art and lust are exhibited; here again is the disgustful one, the “artist,” the thing of intense and meaningless mental and sensual activities whom we have been called upon to hail as the modern protagonist. Here once more we are shown a world of infinite meanness, physical and mental and spiritual, and assured that upon it and nothing else is to be based the new art, “the great, wonderful art, the art of new worlds, worlds transcending phenomena…. And new symbols, new colors, new sounds.” Yet to the eye and the ear and the nose it is the same old thing—a practice of life which strives to make of every experience an orgasm; a deliberate negation of all principles which may serve to succor us from the torment of everlasting nightmare.

    Yet even this final negation, this supreme “rejection of consciousness,” has been accepted as a working basis by various English and American novelists of these latest years. Theodore Dreiser has accepted and enforced it in a long series of naturalistic novels, culminating in ‘The Genius.’ This mongrel person, reduced from the multitudinous facts in which his author’s assiduity envelops him, is a vulgar little bounder by demonstration, a genius by pure assertion. We leave him sentimentally dallying with Christian Science, mysticism, fatherhood, and art. “What a sweet welter life is,” he murmurs, as for the last time (for our benefit) he runs his hand through his hair, “how tender, how grim, how like a colorful symphony.” Welter is the word for such life as is here painted—and romantic welter, that is the amusing thing. Stripped of their patiently amassed and largely meaningless details, these pages give a record of the paltry employments and sex adventures of a common little hero of erotic romance. And we find the figure, less grossly drawn, holding the stage in the work of many of the brilliant younger novelists of the England of recent years—ante-bellum England as we must now think of it. In the stories of those writers whom Mr. James gives high rank among the immediate successors of Messrs. Wells, Bennett, and Galsworthy,—in much at least of the work of Hugh Walpole, Gilbert Cannan, Compton Mackenzie, and D. H. Lawrence, we find ourselves in contact with a new type of British hero in whom, indeed, we seem to discern a mixed ancestry. Whence have descended upon sturdy England these mentally eager, emotionally excitable, morally unstable youths, well-equipped with brains and quite unfurnished with spines,—groping and fumbling for a foothold, a consciousness, which forever eludes them? Who are these Oxford-bred young adventurers, voyaging forth with a locker-full of charts and no compass to try the unknown, full of fears and random desires and sensibilities, yearning over themselves, bursting into tears in the face of danger or suffering?

    It is true that, if we are to accept the ante-bellum literature as evidence, British character was changing very rapidly as the new century came in. Wells, Shaw, Bennett, Chesterton,—what have these names to do with the solid, self-contained, slightly stodgy John Bull of Victorian tradition? They represent an England as unlike the England of Gladstone and Matthew Arnold as the England of Shakespeare was. Here indeed is a type offering some striking analogies to the Elizabethan type—a brilliant, mercurial, youthfully enterprising and irresponsible race. The Victorian Englishman used to reproach us in America for our mere cleverness, our high spirits which led us nowhere, our humor which we coddled at the expense of sober achievement. Well, the twentieth century has seen the situation reversed. It is we who plod, who pull a long face, who are conscious of our responsibilities and our dignity: it is the Briton who sports, who capers, who attires himself in motley and refuses to admit that there is any other wear. So time brings in his revenges.

    But this volatility, this youthful ardor and unrestraint, may be taken as the sign of a secondary reaction—a reaction, as it were, within a reaction. And to understand it we must perceive that the continental influences have, in our century gone beyond the influences of pure naturalism,—have, indeed, tended to reverse them. More and more clearly we are beginning to learn from the literatures of these stranger peoples evidence that they are by no means so strange or unlike ourselves, in the essentials of human character and aspiration, as our fathers believed them to be. Skillful translators, true conveyors, as it were, of the soul of literature from one body to another—artists, for example, like Mrs. Constance Garnett or Mr. Alexander Teixeira de Mattos, have given for the first time to English readers a series of novels from many sources and in divers manners, but possessing a common sanity and wholesome human feeling. One may mention, for example, that remarkable group of novels from the Italian of Antonio Fogazzaro, ‘The Patriot,’ ‘The Sinner,’ and ‘The Saint.’ Here we find no trace of the sterile eroticism which disfigures the novels of his contemporaries, Gabriele d’Annunzio and Matilde Serao. Here is human character in its full integrity and sweetness, its struggle with the flesh, its often painful, sometimes glorious encounter with “life as it lives us.” Humor also is here with its saving grace, its saving insight. Differences in scene, in setting, in dress, in, as it were, the accent of living,—we are fully conscious of them, but not as in any way obscuring the fundamental likenesses which are so much stronger, among Western races at least, than any unlikenesses of the surface.

    And we have the same feeling of essential kinship with many of the Northern story-tellers. We have it with the Swedish novelist, Selma Lagerlöf, whose warm human quality has so rightly been recognized by the award of a Nobel prize. Her peasants, her country parsons, her ardent youths and tremulous maidens, with their drab scene, their toil, their sufferings, their unquenchable hopes and sound and loving hearts, are the stuff that life is made on, wherever life rises above its limitations and asserts its imperial dignities of aspiration and of service. ‘The Emperor of Portugallia,’ for example, is not a “pleasant” story in the superficial sense. Its theme is a sad one, it approaches the borders of tragedy; and yet it all ends upon a rising note, we feel that our pity and terror have not been suffered in vain, since the pain and madness and death of the “Emperor” serve to heal and restore the soul of his beloved, and so to reunite them forever. We have this feeling of kinship also, though it may be a trifle less confidently, with the ‘Small Souls’ of the Dutch novelist, Louis Couperus. His method, which may appear to resemble that of the naturalists, in its ruthless verisimilitude, is set fairly upon the plane of constructive realism by virtue of its sympathy. It is not content to set mean facts before us in great numbers and at haphazard, but selects and interprets them, discerns in their unloveliness a not altogether ignoble meaning. Far more powerfully, we have the feeling of kinship for the people of the Danish story-teller, Martin Andersen Nexø. Fiction in our time has produced no riper work than the ‘Pelle the Conqueror’ of this writer (English translation, 1917). This work has been recognized abroad as a masterpiece—a fact which we may well bear in mind at moments when we are encountering continental fiction in one of its morbid or suffocating phases. For this is a book of spiritual health if there ever was one. It is a “life story” in a very large and noble sense. The hero, Pelle, is son of a cowherd upon a barren Danish island. Of a sound and sanguine nature he finds what good he may in the squalid years of his childhood, and in his first boyhood sets forth with the high heart and the selfishness of youth (for the old father must be left forlorn) to seek his fortunes among men. He has much to undergo—the first turbulent and purposeless phases of manhood to live through, disillusion to face, and even despair. At last the upward turn comes: a woman has shamed him into resolution. It is still of self that he thinks, though of self-triumphing over other selves, over hostile things. The injustices of the social order more and more excite him. As yet there is nothing generous or constructive in his passion, it is hardly more than the brute impulse towards self-assertion, self-aggrandizement. So, blindly and selfishly, yet with the beginnings of strength in him, he fares on, until, in the final book of the narrative, he finds his true self and his true and high calling in the world.

    This kind of literature, clearly, is not a product of the scientific or “naturalistic” method. It is full of idealism, the consciousness of spiritual law. And more than one modern Russian has been introduced to us in English garb, who displays the same consciousness. It was evident in the work of W. M. Garshin, “the melancholiac,” a hapless enough figure, who lived his short life in the shadow of madness, and who yet had within him, however shrouded, much of the spiritual health and force which creates. He is somehow free from the phosphorescence of degenerate “art;” a clear light of human sympathy, of faith in human goodness, burns in him. And this we feel even more strongly in many of his successors—to take a single example, in Alexander Kuprin. Romashov, the hero of ‘The Duel,’ Kuprin’s best-known story, may, to be sure, be dismissed as another Hamlet, but he is not a Hamlet of the commonly alleged Russian or water-hen type. He is ineffective enough, and yet not a mere receptacle for random thoughts and emotions. He hangs together, has a recognizable personality, commands our sympathy as a fellow-being. Sentimental Tommy would be a closer prototype than Hamlet: he is ourselves, our fallible and laughable but (let us hope) not quite contemptible selves. In short, he is a product of creative humor quite as intelligible to the West as to the East. In Kuprin, clearly, we have a Russian who is not torn between gross materialism and hectic propaganda, who sees life without illusion but without despair, and is able to value it for its own sake.

    And the fiction of twentieth-century France has shown a far stronger reaction against the “scientific realism” of the Zola period. That excellent critic, Winifred Stevens, goes so far as to say that “this negative tendency is the most prominent feature of the French novel of today, the one bond of union between its numerous schools. Reaction against Realism characterizes alike the novel of manners of Anatole France, the sociological novel of Barrès, the passion novel of Prévost, and the moral studies of Édouard Rod.” Anatole France has led one current of this reaction towards a new classicism; Charles Maurras has followed him, holding in contempt realism and romanticism alike, and pursuing an ideal of classic restraint and intellectual beauty. But the general tendency in later years has been away from intellectualism. Even Maurice Barrès has united to his practice of classical form an explicitly romantic purpose, announcing his belief that the hope of art lies in the direction of romance rather than of realism or classicism, since it is romance that “enlarges the soul.” “What a little thing upon the surface of ourselves is intelligence!” he exclaims. Paul Bourget looks backward, “an apostle of arrested development,” basing his interpretation of life upon a profound belief in the institutions of religion and of monarchy. Prévost, on the other hand, vaunts himself as a restorer of Romance.

    In short, we have in the modern French novel, a field of immense activity and experiment, an expression of the fruitful ferment of a race full of consciousness and vigor. This is frankly a fiction of ideas, it presents all aspects of French life and thought. And on the whole the ruling tendency is away from morbid refinement as well as morbid realism, in the direction of a healthier, lustier and more sanguine interpretation of human life. It is still predominantly a Latin fiction, a fiction for adults, in which the physiology and psychology of sex play, as it seems to us, a rather overwhelming part. Bourget, the classicist, produced nothing more characteristic than his ‘Cruelle Énigme,’ that study of hopeless human fallibility, with its sad conclusion, as gloomy as that of any Russian naturalist, that all life is a cruel enigma. And Prévost, the professed romanticist, has never been able to turn his eyes away from the flesh and its torments, helplessly justifying Jules Lemaître’s judgment of him as “a moralist who, certain of his conclusions, loves to dwell at length on what he condemns.” But novelists in growing numbers have arisen who do not set us this racial obstacle to surmount: ‘Pierre de Coulevain,’ for example, with her mystical idealism, or, to name a far greater, Romain Rolland, one of the chief interpreters of our time.

    Of that strange masterpiece, ‘Jean-Christophe,’ there is room for only a word here. Its huge bulk, running to ten volumes in the French, its apparent formlessness, its encyclopædic commentary upon the whole course of modern life during the past half-century, fairly deny it the name of novel in so far as the term is connected with any recognizable rules or principles of art. Episode is piled upon episode, discourse upon discourse, plot, in the sense of a continuous and ordered action, there is not. Yet out of it all the patient reader will derive a singularly powerful impression of the central personality, and of the philosophy of life which he embodies. Jean-Christophe is a musical genius, born on the Rhine and in early manhood forced to leave his country on account of his part in a political movement. He goes to Paris, and after a long struggle with poverty and unfriendly surroundings, triumphs in his art. Paris then wishes to spoil him, but he is too great-hearted to endure the petty process. He has his experiences of love, on lower and higher planes, ending in one great and satisfying attachment. “He dies in middle life, glowing to the end with the thought of the splendid battle for righteousness which life holds out to the robust and the brave. Loyalty to principle and to friend is his outstanding quality.” No invertebrate hero this, it is plain, though of the artist tribe.—A book, in sum, of noble optimism and high emotion.

    Now it is noteworthy that the “life” novels of Rolland’s English-writing contemporaries not only show, in greater or less degree, his diffuseness, his formlessness, his episodic and cumulative method, but show in some measure, and as it were willy-nilly, something much like his emotional quality. And here we come to that secondary reaction which, as I have said, marks their work. It is an inner reaction in favor of precisely that “Victorian” trait of sentiment which these writers have formally, and as a matter of theory, eschewed. I may quote a paragraph enforcing this point from a recent article in the Nation (American):

  • “The most important thing is not that these men, Rolland, and Bennett, and to a lesser extent Wells, have revived the leisurely method of the Mid-Victorians. It is rather the fact that in order to carry the reader over the long stretch between cover and cover they must resort to the impetus of emotion or sentimentality, call it what you will, upon which the early novelists relied. That is all very fine inlay work, no doubt, by which Bennett depicts the moods of the schoolboy Clayhanger, as he hangs over the parapet of the bridge pitching stones into the water; or young Clayhanger’s emotions on coming into possession of a bedroom of his own; or that extraordinary Sunday-school celebration in the public square which runs through several chapters. But let the honest reader compare his own leisurely reactions to such examples of mosaic artistry with the sudden emotional rush that clutches him when Mr. Bennett drops his stitch work and begins to tell the story of Clayhanger’s father as a factory boy in the unhappy days of unmitigated Manchestrianism. Those chapters sweep the reader straightforward on a tide of pity and of indignation that is straight out of Dickens. It is Mid-Victorianism breaking loose from the confines of scientific restraint. Let the reader recall the scene in the death-chamber of Clayhanger’s father, or that extraordinary scene of youth and romance and sentiment when Clayhanger meets Hilda in the garden at night. Mr. Saintsbury insists that the prime mission of the novelist is to ‘enfist’ you. Mr. Bennett enfists you when he eschews filagree work and lets himself go on elementals—pity, young love, death. It is the same with ‘Jean-Christophe in Paris.’ We are carried away on a current of suffering, pity, self-sacrifice, which is nothing but plain, blubbering Mid-Victorianism. And the only two living characters which Mr. Wells has created are the Dickensian hero of ‘Tono-Bungay’ and his wife.”
  • This is suggestive rather than altogether satisfying, since it blandly waives the distinction between emotion and sentimentality which is the real question at issue. But it fairly “gives away” the secret of that warm appeal to the heart and the imagination which underlies and now and then breaks through the cool, hard, brilliant surface of our twentieth-century performers.

    One of the last critical utterances of the late Henry James was a paper on ‘The New Novel.’ He meant the novel of the younger British story-tellers, the twentieth-century novel in English, and we may well take our cue from him in examining the physical qualities of that novel, its standing as a product of literary art. Henry James found, to begin with, that whatever might be said of our fiction must be said of a fiction which has lacked the guidance or the checking of intelligent criticism: “No equal outpouring of matter into the mold of literature, or what roughly passes for such, has been noted to live its life and maintain its flood, its level at least of quantity and mass, in such free and easy independence of critical attention.” He surmises that the low pitch of criticism may have helped to establish a low pitch of accomplishment by the artist. Or, putting it otherwise, “the flood of ‘production’ has so inordinately exceeded the activity of control that this latter anxious agent, first alarmed but then indifferent, has been forced backward out of the gate, leaving the contents of the reservoir to boil and evaporate.” And the bulkiness and lawlessness of this product are, he thinks, both democratic phenomena.

  • “Beyond number are the ways in which the democratic example, once gathering momentum, sets its mark on societies and seasons that stand in its course. Nowhere is that example written larger, to our perception, than in ‘the new novel’; through this, we hasten to add, not in the least because prose fiction now occupies itself as never before with the ‘condition of the people,’ a fact quite irrelevant to the nature it has taken on, but because that nature amounts exactly to the complacent declaration of a common literary level.”
  • In short, James finds that the democratic principle, eschewing selection, naturally has little regard for criticism or for that artistic excellence which it is the chief business of criticism to celebrate. The democratic tendency is therefore “to regard, and above all to treat, one manner of book, like one manner of person, as, if not absolutely as good as another, yet good enough for any democratic use.”

    In the new novel, then, James, and we with him, must make ourselves content with a vast deal of material, and a “high average workmanship,” and with relatively little of high artistic quality or distinction. Coming to his cases, James finds that Messrs. Bennett and Wells bear a quasi-parental relation to the most promising of the very youngest British novelists. He perceives that their practice, if not their doctrine of fiction is as a product of immersion or “saturation.” Mr. Bennett, for example, knows his Five Towns so thoroughly, is so soaked in his material, that he has only to squeeze himself to be interesting. His office is to give off the thing itself, not to interpret it. So after finding ‘Clayhanger’ and its sequel “the most monumental of Mr. Bennett’s recitals,” we proceed to recognize it as “so describable through its being a monument exactly not to an idea, a pursued and captured meaning, or in short, to anything whatever, but just simply of the quarried and gathered material it happened to contain, the stones and bricks and rubble and cement and promiscuous constituents of every sort that have been heaped in it, and thanks to which it quite massively piles itself up.” So also, in the guidance of Mr. James, we find that Mr. Wells’s novels, the best of them, “are so very much more attestations of the presence of material than attestations in the use of it, that we ask ourselves again and again why so fondly neglected a state of leakage comes not to be fatal to any provision of quantity, or even to stores more specially selected for the ordeal than Mr. Wells’s always strike us as being.”

    These sayings are in the difficult Jacobite manner. Being interpreted, they mean that in Henry James’s opinion neither Mr. Bennett nor Mr. Wells has succeeded in transmuting his limitless ores of fact into the gold of art, and that this failure is shared by virtually all of the novelists of our period. We must remember that to Henry James the art of story-telling was extremely intricate and elaborate. He carried over from the nineties into our generation a feeling for style and form in literature which is confessedly shared by few persons to-day. We are all for speaking straight out, in such accents as Providence may have bestowed upon us and our next-door neighbors. We think ourselves well rid of the elegances and artifices of the nineties, and we take pride in a robust and forthright way of putting things. No doubt the reaction is good and wholesome, in its way. Stevenson might have been a bigger man without his affectations—or is it that a bigger man would not have been guilty of them? Henry James himself came very near getting lost, in later years, in the mazes of his style. It is pleasant to think that the Yellow Books of our day appeal to small and unrepresentative constituencies. It is well that the writing man can no longer afford to mince his words and speak prettily. But it is not altogether well, on the other hand, that he can now afford to make his utterance as offhand and slipshod as he likes. William Watson, in a little monograph called ‘Pencraft’ has recently taken up arms for the older and more lettered way. He argues for the “scriptive” as against the “loquitive” methods of expression, the literary word as against the vernacular. But the truth is, both forms of expression are literary, though one is based on books and the other on speech. The American magazine style of the moment is in point: it is picturesque, it spurns restraint and elegance, it professes to employ the speech of the man in the street. Of course, it does not employ that speech. If it did, its vast popularity would vanish quickly enough. But it creates the illusion. The sources of current style are not in the vernacular, they are still in the printed word: only it is the newspaper word, the magazine word, instead of the book word. For the printed word has its own literary fashions and models, whether it is conscious of them or not. Stevenson and the men of his generation were strongly conscious of them, and used to look for them in books, in the great books of the world. They imitated, they tried effects, they labored towards the perfection of a vehicle for their thoughts or their inventions. Then came the reaction; and British letters for half a generation have been in the hands of a group trained in journalism, men who brought many of the tricks of journalism to their business of authorship. It was as writers of timely “copy” that Messrs. Shaw, Wells, Bennett, Chesterton, Belloc, contracted the brusque, clever, whimsical, jolting, form of expression which remains the accepted British style of the hour.

    I suspect that Henry James was so little able to forgive Mr. Bennett and Mr. Wells for their lack of distinction in style, that their other qualities were hopelessly obscured for him. There has been a tendency in certain quarters—as there is bound to be when two contemporary writers are of measurably equal rank and influence—to hold these two novelists up side by side and guess at their relative merits. Yet if one were asked whether he preferred ‘The Old Wives’ Tale’ or ‘The Research Magnificent,’ his fair retort would be, “Do you prefer curried mutton or champagne?” There is no good reason for praising one at the expense of the other. Indeed, these two books, and these two writers, might be taken as representing two distinct tendencies in twentieth-century fiction. The power of ‘The Old Wives’ Tale’ lies in the deep current of irony which we may feel flowing under the surface of its trivial fond records. One gets the same impression from ‘Clayhanger’ and ‘Hilda Lessways.’ In ‘These Twain’ we find the trail of the serpent—or, let us say, the Dead Sea fruits of that brilliant incontinence to which, for most of his working days, Mr. Bennett so frankly yields himself. Here is not a little of the inconsequent cleverness, the pursuit of the comic fillip, the voluptuous cuddling of paradox, which have vulgarized British letters for two decades. In ‘These Twain,’ in short, that deeper irony too often fades to sarcasm, though, as it were, it makes what headway it may against the current of Mr. Bennett’s obtruding cleverness. But at his best I read him not as a realist in the sense, as some critics read him, of a profound interpreter of his time or in the sense, as Henry James has read him, of a person thoroughly squeezing the sponge of his special saturation, but as an ironist of notable power, deeply preoccupied with the homely straits of human character and experience. For this ironic spirit the Five Towns are, after all, nothing more than a local habitation.

    Now Mr. Wells is never content to paint his human scene in the light of a diffused and half-hidden irony. He is not a realist with a settled philosophy of life. He is a dreamer, a seeker. A critic who likes Mr. Bennett and dislikes Mr. Wells has said that ‘The Research Magnificent’ seems like child’s play compared with ‘The Old Wives’ Tale.’ Admirers of Mr. Wells may comfortably concede this. Child’s play has poetic and even prophetic qualities; it is seldom realistic and never ironic. Mr. Wells at his worst is (as Mr. Bennett is in a different sense) childish. At his best he is, if one chooses, childlike—a seer of visions and a dreamer of dreams. No doubt he lacks that commonsense which has been hailed as “the one priceless possession” of mankind, and which is certainly the one foundation of conduct—and of irony. But other possessions are priceless—among them the uncommon-nonsense of an occasional writer like Mr. Wells. At his height he serves to remind us that, among the anxious brilliancies and careful ironies of our time, imagination has not yet lost its faculty of splendid recklessness, of fruitful folly. And more than once—most notably and triumphantly in ‘Mr. Britling Sees it Through’—the prophet has laid aside his mantle for the achievement of a fine realism, a fruitful interpretation of human character in action.

    But the twentieth-century English novel does not altogether lack its practitioners of style and form. There are the two older story-tellers, Maurice Hewlett and Joseph Conrad, contemporaries of the “loquitive” writers, Wells and Bennett and the rest, yet quite without relation to them. Hewlett is a romancer whose allegiance to romance has never wavered. It has seemed until recently that his imagination needed a certain remoteness in time and space: his most characteristic achievements were in a sort of glorified “costume” romance, as in ‘The Forest Lovers’ or ‘Richard Yea-and-Nay.’ When he came nearer modernity, as in ‘Mrs. Lancelot,’ or ‘Bendish,’ or ‘Open Country,’ he was less successful because he seemed less sincere. But ‘Love and Lucy’ has disposed of this impression: Mr. Hewlett has done nothing more characteristic, though he here waives that detachment from the present which has seemed essential to the weaving of his spell. In this story he takes a theme such as Mr. Locke or Mr. Bennett might have chosen, and invests it with his own peculiar enchantment. He does that thing for which the critics are always crying—takes the ordinary person, living on anybody’s street, and fills him and his affairs with the glamour of romance, garbs him in the cloth of gold of “style.”

    Joseph Conrad has always stood apart from his English contemporaries. His style shows a strong French influence, but his substance is more British than the modern Briton in its restraint and reticence. His method of telling a story is strangely involved, yet the, as it were, subtle simplicity of his effects depends upon it. Often we feel that he conquers the difficulty inherent in his chosen theme by a separate tour de force. With him the reader must become accustomed and acclimated, so that he may feel the thrill of a familiar strangeness in that atmospheric charm with which this writer’s fancy invests the sea and its exotic peoples and shores. In the end we feel that he represents himself, and not any school or tendency.

    Among the younger British novelists, several have distinctly risen above that dead level of style which Mr. James has deplored. Miss Ethel Sidgwick, for example, and Compton Mackenzie, and D. H. Lawrence; and, in his latest novel at least, ‘The Dark Forest,’ Hugh Walpole. We find also an evident pursuit of style in the work of Gilbert Cannan. Mr. Cannan translated ‘Jean-Christophe,’ and has tried his own hand at the “life novel.” In ‘Three Sons and a Mother,’ the neutral, circumstantial life story is at its best. The chronicle is painstakingly objective and indeterminate. Between its covers certain human beings do, according to their ability, live and have their being. The question—the burning question for the reader—remains: whether they concern him in any way. And this question we find ourselves plaintively asking in connection with very much of the brilliant or faithful chronicling of these younger novelists. Mr. Compton Mackenzie, for example, has striven to be an artist, a stylist as well as an interpreter. He has compassed the style, but we are less sure about the interpretation. ‘Plasher’s Mead,’ for example, is full of verbal felicities, but in the end the reader is bound to ask what the noise, whether melodious or brusque, is all about? And it turns out to be about the same old thing, the thing so dwelt upon in ‘Carnival’ and ‘Sinister Street’—the Oxford youth, hypersensitive dilettante, self-absorbed experimenter with æsthetic and erotic experience.

    A variety of the novel of revolt which has reached prominence during the past decade is the novel of feminism. Woman’s vote, woman’s “economic independence,” woman’s moral and intellectual equality with (or superiority over) man—these themes have been greatly occupying our story-tellers. And it has not always been a wholesome preoccupation, as witness, the novels of Mr. W. L. George (who is, to be sure, half a Frenchman). But the breath of the Great War has swept away British militancy among women, as well as British dilettantism among men. The first effect of the War was negative. Writers of proved power, who before the war seemed to be groping for themes in the humdrum of life, were stunned rather than inspired by the rush of events. For the first year or two they could only muster reports, side-lights, impressions, opinions. The novelist turned journalist, or pamphleteer, or diarist of his own minute experiences at the Front. Or, perhaps, he went on struggling with his humdrum, merely venturing to employ here and there a scene or an episode of war to give the timely touch or to help along the plot. So Miss May Sinclair in ‘The Belfry,’ used Belgium and her torment as a means of (rather fantastically) vindicating one Tasker Jevons, the cockney genius of her story. With ‘Gossamer,’ Canon Hannay (‘G. A. Birmingham’) went considerably farther. An aspect of the War itself was his theme. But he hardly carried us beyond the outbreak of the conflict, and merely as fellow-observers at a physically safe remove. More time had to pass before, in Hugh Walpole’s ‘The Dark Forest,’ in E. V. Lucas’s ‘The Vermilion Box,’ and finally in Mr. Wells’s ‘Mr. Britling Sees it Through,’ we began to find the great conflict clearly and powerfully embodied in literature.

    ‘The Dark Forest’ is a finished piece of literary art, by means of which Mr. Walpole successfully rendered not his experiences, but his experience, as a member of the Red Cross service on the Eastern Front. The smoke and wounds and blood are here in the narrative, but in their proper place, as details and not the main thing. A romantic human story is the writer’s first object, and he has permitted nothing to interfere with its telling. On the other hand, it would have been a very different affair with another setting and atmosphere. These elementary human dramas, the novelist seems to assure us, do go on in the perilous breach itself: in the presence of death, men live their eager lives, cling to their hopes and aspirations, their intimate ties and interests. We have here no record of a campaign, but the tale of these men and women has the sound and breath and odor of the brutal thing called war—the background and the atmosphere of so many millions of lives as they must be lived through in war-time. In ‘The Vermilion Box’ and ‘Mr. Britling Sees it Through,’ Mr. Lucas and Mr. Wells have attempted much the same thing to show the war coming home to England, the England of the easy ways, and proving itself not an incident but a trial by fire, out of which must come a land purged and strengthened. The objective simplicity of Mr. Walpole’s method is quite beyond, or beside, Mr. Wells. But by quite frankly taking for his theme himself, his experiences, his emotions and reactions, he produced an extraordinarily sincere and vivid impression of what, day by day, as men were setting sail and bulletins were coming in, those early days of war did to England and for England. Mr. Britling gradually undergoes a change of heart, and we are sure that the rich note of faith upon which his voice ceases must have rung in the consciousness of his creator.

    Nor is it only from England that we are getting this riper record of war-experience. In the ante-bellum days Pierre Mille gave us a new type of the French soldier. Mille was hailed as the French Kipling; and indeed his Barnavaux is a sort of Gallic Mulvaney, and his philosophy is akin to that of the author of ‘The Seven Seas.’ He preaches the doctrine of the white man’s burden, and of the white man’s predestined dominance over all the nations of the earth; Barnavaux, like Mulvaney, is a good deal of a rascal, loving moral liberty and finding it, by a familiar paradox, in the rôle of the subordinate. Noblesse oblige—therefore it is more comfortable not to be a noble. But the present War has set another problem than that of the relation of the East and the West, and has already produced far deeper interpretations of French character and ideals. The ‘Ordeal by Fire’ of Marcel Berger is a brilliant example. The author, like his hero, was a sergeant in the French army, and there must be a great deal of autobiography in his narrative. But he has embodied his experience, physical and spiritual, in a romance of as genuine human interest as we have found in Mr. Walpole’s ‘The Dark Forest.’ It is an extraordinary study of the emergence of a modern young Frenchman, physically alert, but morally disillusioned and lackadaisical, from his shell of fruitless egoism into a genuine patriotism and manhood—the gospel of service again. Of great vitality also is the ‘Gaspard’ of René Benjamin, which received a de Goncourt prize—a notable sign of the change that has come over the spirit of French letters.

    In twentieth-century America we have had no such ordeal to face, up to the year 1917. And American fiction as a whole has scored no very distinguished achievement. The short story has become a field of immensely profitable labor, following a few formulæ exacted by the popular magazines. It has been more than anything else an “O. Henry” period. Everywhere, all over the country, all sorts and conditions of men are trying, upon the O. Henry model, to “break into” the treasuries of the “best-paying” periodicals. It is frankly a commercial enterprise, and leads to little or nothing in the way of artistic merit. As for the novel, similar standards obtain in the popular mind. The envied achievement is the “best-seller,” the book which somehow “gets across” to the largest (and largest-paying) audience. The question of literary merit—of sincere interpretation and sincere workmanship—has little or nothing to do with the make-up of this worshiped list. On the other hand, I cannot, because rubbish “succeeds” after this fashion, take the gloomy and indeed desperate view of spectators like Mr. Owen Wister, who honestly believes that the American novel is an abomination, and that our literature has gone to the dogs.

    It is true that we have too few novels which unconstrainedly utter ourselves as we are: give, without self-consciousness, the true flavor and atmosphere which we, as Americans, are tasting and breathing every day of our lives. We get enough and to spare of New Yorkism and New Englandism and provincialism under divers labels, but lamentably little of the Americanism we all have in common. ‘Huckleberry Finn’ had it, and ‘Silas Lapham.’ Their provincialism, their “local color” merely gave opportunity for the vivid expression of a humanly universal interpretation of life. Among story-tellers of our own day, Robert Herrick has often approximated such an Americanism, without ever quite attaining it. He has the seeing eye, but not the believing heart: there is an elegiac strain in all his work, a plaintive skepticism which seems to echo rather faintly from the Continental realism of the nineties. Winston Churchill, who through his earlier novels, up to ‘Mr. Crewe’s Career,’ I should say, showed a steady advance in the story-teller’s art, has of late taken to the platform, and used the glass of fiction for the purpose of reflecting, and as it were novelizing, this or that popular reaction of the hour. He is no longer a romancer, but a popular commentator, very earnest and sincere in his purpose, but, as a story-teller, undertaking the impossible. Our eagerness to welcome any sort of success in this kind of attempt was shown in the amazingly enthusiastic reception we gave to Booth Tarkington’s ‘The Turmoil.’ That, to be sure, was a good deal better story than Mr. Churchill’s ‘The Inside of the Cup.’ It contained some real hints at characterization; but the whole performance, upon a little examination, shows itself artificial to the point of absurdity—movie-stuff, cleverly masking as a serious study of American life. Mr. Tarkington is a true humorist, and his ‘Penrod’ stories are a far more serious and valuable contribution to literature than his novels.

    With us, as with the English, feminism has been an increasingly important theme or background for fiction. We have had a long series of militant novels by Mrs. Gertrude Atherton, who apparently shares the general theory, in feminist circles, that women are just the same as men, only more so. Mrs. Atherton has brilliant qualities, but a lack of mental and artistic poise which has permitted her to produce no work of sustained merit. Poise is precisely the quality which gives Margaret Deland’s work its wholesome appeal. In ‘The Rising Tide’ she treats the subject of feminism with characteristic good sense and good humor. Like Mr. Bennett in ‘The Lion’s Share,’ she cheerfully confesses that there is a tide, and respectfully submits that it is not a tide which need altogether submerge all other interests and considerations in the world. ‘The Spinster,’ by Sarah M. Cleghorn, is another very sincere and suggestive study of the problems of women as they have been faced and wrought with by one woman. It is the story of “a nineteenth-century girl finding her place in the twentieth.” The heroine is as real a person as Pendennis, and as typical of a class. She has no beauty, she lacks the charm which attracts men, she is forthright, easily fired to indignation, a born champion of causes. She longs to write, has power to write, but her work is root-bound by literary tradition, has no rich human soil beneath it. Or rather the soil is there, in her own really big nature, but she makes no use of it. Gradually she discovers that humanity interests her more than art; and it is with this discovery that her art begins to be strong. Love passes her rudely by, but she learns that mate-love is not the only sort with which a woman’s heart may satisfyingly be filled. The book is indigenous and sincere—a true American utterance, and not a contrivance.

    This, like all the greater fiction of our period, is, it will be seen, a book of seeking—the human soul, as it is now embodied in France, or Russia, or England, or America, ardently in pursuit of a working ideal. Jean-Christophe, Pelle the Conqueror,—all of these heroes of modern fiction are travelers in search of life. A recent American novel of uncommon power which again treats this theme, is the ‘Windy McPherson’s Son’ of Sherwood Anderson. This is the story of a search for success. The hero seems to see it and to find it at first upon the material plane. But the time comes when, having made a great fortune and a favorable marriage, he feels that all this is not enough, that he has not even aimed for the true goal; and so he sets out upon a vague quest, groping here and there for a key to the meaning of existence. The oldest theme in the world, one might say, but here given a fresh and true American embodiment. But if one were to ask me for the best recent example of a sound and creative realism, in the work of American story-tellers, I could suggest nothing better, among all the attempts that have been made in recent years, than ‘The Song of the Lark,’ by Willa Sibert Cather, and ‘The Harbor’ and ‘His Family,’ by Ernest Poole. Such fiction has properties other than suggestiveness, or charm, or a momentary appeal to whatever interest: it is a product of art, finished, sound, and noble. And in such fiction, with its fine and hopeful realism, lies the best prospect and the best goal of the twentieth-century novelist.