Carl Van Doren (1885–1950). The American Novel. 1921.Chapter 9. The Eighties and Their Kin
Section 1. Varied Types
The novels of the eighties cannot be reduced to any such simple formulas as suffice with the romance of Cooper’s school or with the tearful tales of the fifties. They show diversities of style and structure, of artistic and moral attitude, as well as topographical variety. In general they represent a decisive advance in simplicity and reality. Characters were now no longer required to speak the stilted language or to feel the quivering sentiments that had once seemed symptoms of nobility of soul. At the same time, but little advance had been made in the direction of studied raciness or strenuous naturalism. Howells’s honest decency set the tone for the period. As the master was often saved from seeming thin and tame only by his unfailing grace and mellow wisdom, the disciples, inferior in these respects, did not always escape thinness or tameness. The preoccupation with local color encouraged love of surfaces, if not a satisfaction with surfaces alone; so that, though the local color novel was likely to be a more serious performance than the short story of the type, it nevertheless suffered from the contagion of triviality. The fiction of the eighties suffered, too, from the delicate contagion of gentility. At the best it imparted daintiness and charm; at the worst, timidity and bloodlessness. The violent currents of political life during the decade, which brought a new party into power for the first time in a quarter of a century; the rising warfare upon established economic privilege; the rapid growth in luxury and sophistication—these but faintly appear in the novels which the decade brought forth, except for those specifically designed to redress grievances or to expose wrongs. Ordinarily, ideas played but a small part. Nor was this absence of ideas compensated for, again except in special cases, by large ranges of personality or depths of passion or impressive beauty or truth. The lives which these novels represent have little to do with the clash of the times in religious or moral, any more than in political, matters. Even in the love affairs which make up the great bulk of all such narratives the complications are of the simplest and the psychology simpler still. The very young do most of the loving, innocently, pathetically, hardly ever realistically or tragically. If love is simple, so is livelihood. While many of the novels do indeed concern themselves with the poor, it is the more or less contented poor of the older American villages where no serious poverty existed. In but few cases do the heroes and heroines of the eighties contend with the society in which they live, and then rarely indeed with the approval of their authors. Fiction, in short, had not assumed the heavier burdens laid on it by a subsequent generation, but existed largely for entertainment.
If it was thus limited in certain directions, so was it freed in others. It recognized no obligation to be polemic, though it could be so on occasion. It did not look relentlessly for victims of the social order who might be elevated into champions of a higher truth. It did not feel obliged to take many exceptions to the broad average current of human existence. It chose the simpler emotions for the reason that American character was simple. It preferred to make as much of the cheerful aspects of life as possible, because that was the general American preference, even when there was much unpleasantness to be blinked at. With such a temper prevalent, the style of fiction naturally became lighter and gayer. It discarded the blocks of description which the older romances had admitted and the showers of tears which had immediately preceded the Civil War. Having taken stock of technical methods, it varied its structures with its themes, gave an increased attention to dialect and dialogue, studied the problems of proportion and emphasis. The decade made a highly eclectic use of foreign models. Lanier devoted nearly a half of his study of the English novel to George Eliot, who was influential in many quarters. The writers of local color novels in not a few instances showed traces of Thomas Hardy. Ben-Hur recalls both Bulwer-Lytton and Victor Hugo. Aldrich and Cable and Bunner had obviously read such Frenchmen as Merimée, About, Daudet, Maupassant, though with reservations. Toward the end of the decade Zola began to be heard, particularly railed at, however, by the orthodox. Henry James and Howells investigated and expounded Turgenev; James added most of the French novelists of the time; Howells added Dostoevsky and his master passion Tolstoy, as well as the Spanish Galdós, Valdés, Valera, and the Italian Verga; while both Howells and James had something to say of almost every eminent European who practised fiction. Though eclectic, the American novel was not unwarrantably imitative. It had certain traditions of its own and followed them. It was faithful to American life, at least to those phases which it chose to record. Its points of view were clearly national. Without achieving methods as distinctive as those of the short story, the American novel was still a distinctively, unmistakably native product.
In the department of domestic sentimentalism the most widely read rivals of E. P. Roe and his kind who appeared in the eighties happened both to be Lancashire women resident in America: Frances Hodgson Burnett, whose Little Lord Fauntleroy (1886) moistened millions of uncritical eyes with its account of the American child instructing the British aristocracy in democratic manners: and Amelia Edith Barr, whose swift, kindly pen played over all the fields of fiction except the distinguished. In the romance of adventure Anna Katharine Green Rohlfs made something of a new departure with her very successful detective stories, and Captain (later General) Charles King became the first novelist of the American army, with his brisk stories of field and camp and military post. The historical novel, for which Howells and James cared so little, suffered some neglect, though Ben-Hur belonged to that form and A Connecticut Yankee burlesqued it; John Esten Cooke worked in it till his death in 1886; Marion Crawford handled past and present with almost equal ease; and at the end of the decade several writers began to point forward to the historical-romantic “best sellers” which crowded the nineties. The older fashion of sea tales and foreign adventure, now fallen into abeyance, had been succeeded by the milder comedy of international manners, as handled by Howells and James. Mark Twain, of course, handled it humorously, and Crawford, when he liked, with vigorous knowledge. A tragic note infrequent in these international comedies was struck by Blanche Willis Howard’s Guenn (1884), the story of an American painter in a Breton village and the hopeless, fatal love which he awakens in a young girl there. Most such novels represented their Americans as a little bewildered by the superior complexity of European manners; to Guenn, wild and simple, Hamor seems rich and strange and great. The story, founded, it is said, on the actual experience of a painter who is still living, charmingly preserves the spirit of a day when American artists were mad with the love of France and swarmed over it in pursuit of the beauty and quaintness which at the moment seemed to reside there as nowhere else.
Novels of foreign life might have flourished more numerously had it not been for the zest with which the rarer materials of existence were pursued at home. Better though the local color writers were in short stories than in novels, their longer novels cannot be overlooked. Bret Harte, in such attempts as The Story of a Mine (1878), Maruja (1885), Cressy (1889), A Waif of the Plains (1890), as in other brief novels like them, did no more than to expand short stories with a loss of effectiveness in proportion as he expanded them. And Gabriel Conroy (1876), a long novel, for all the novelty and even riches of its contrasts of California civilizations, is lamentably deficient as regards conception, structure, and suspense. With certain touches here and there of Harte’s romantic charm or insinuating irony, it is for the most part mere melodrama, without even the distinction of being swift or thrilling as melodrama should be. The contrast of Californian civilizations led Helen Hunt Jackson to write one of the most moving of American romances. In A Century of Dishonor (1881) she had begun her indictment of the United States government for its treatment of the Indians. In Ramona (1884) she carried the indictment further, bringing her passion to bear in a new guise. What Uncle Tom’s Cabin had done to make known the wrongs of the black slaves, Ramona attempted to do for the red wards of the nation. It was no longer possible to take Fenimore Cooper’s attitude toward the Indian as a lofty child of nature; since Cooper’s day there had been the wars with the Sioux and the massacre of Custer. Mrs. Jackson eluded the difficulty by making Ramona, the heroine, and her Temecula husband Alessandro so near to high caste Mexicans in color and nurture that their wrongs as Indians seem hardly typical of the real grievances of their unfortunate race. They suffer little more from the invading Yankees than do the proudest Mexicans. Indeed, the true conflict and injustice occur between the old Californians, Indian or Spanish, and the predacious vanguard of the Anglo-Saxon conquest. For Mrs. Jackson California had been a splendid paradise of patriarchal estates, in vast fertile valleys, steeped in a drowsy antiquity, and cherished by fine, unworldly priests. Against this rich background she set a story which begins in peace, blackens to hard and ugly tragedy, and then grows at the end to peace again. The pomp of the setting, the strength of the contrasts, the eloquence, the intensity, the passionate color—these dominate, almost submerge, the problem with which the narrative is concerned; but they also tend to lift it above controversy, into those higher regions of the imagination in which particular acts of injustice take on a universal significance, in which blunders become tragedies not temporary accidents.
Ramona was a local color novel which had a passionate aim and a large historical background as well as quaint surfaces. Two novels of the Mississippi Valley, G. W. Cable’s The Grandissimes (1880) and E. W. Howe’s The Story of a Country Town (1883), illustrate the range which the type permitted. The Grandissimes is to New Orleans what Irving’s Knickerbocker History might have been to New York had Irving given himself less to comic history and more to witty romance. For his period Cable chose the year of the purchase of Louisiana by the United States, but the entire history of the old province lies behind his narrative, constantly showing through; for his scene he chose New Orleans, but action shifts, at least by report, to plantation and bayou, forest and swamp. No other American novel represents such a mingling of races: French and Spanish and German and Yankee, Creole and quadroon, Indian aborigines, and negro slaves who speak a strange jargon of French and English but who have the instincts of Africa in their blood. This New Orleans is a city of austere castes and almost incomprehensible customs, never too obviously explained, though hinted at with laughing dexterity. The central plot, which shows the houses of Grandissime and De Grapion at war and then reconciles and unites them by marriage, loses itself, unfortunately, in a maze of episodes. But the episodes glitter under a treatment and a style to the last degree allusive, sparkling, felicitous. By comparison, The Story of a Country Town moves with the cold tread and hard diction of a saga. It has, indeed, various romantic elements: there is a mill in a dark wood; the church bell tolls fitfully in high winds; certain of the characters prowl about ominously midnight after midnight. The author, whose first book this was, apparently did not know how to give it the sense of locality. It is as if the bare, sunburned Kansas plain, on which the action passes, had no real depth, no mystery in itself, no native motif but the smoldering discontent of an inarticulate frontier. If it lacks locality, so does it lack relief, comedy, poetical touches, and above all that flowing optimism which too often weakened the books of the period. The Story of a Country Town is the sternest, the grimmest of American novels—and it was published the same year as Mark Twain’s joyous Life on the Mississippi. If happiness or gaiety ever lighted up Fairview and Twin Mounds Howe’s story does not tell it. There is something symbolic about the figure of the narrator’s father, the Rev. John Westlock, who outwardly practises the most ferocious Calvinism and yet is daily haunted by gorgeous processions of sin sweeping before his eyes, until he runs off with a vulgar woman to an existence more miserable than the first. Symbolic, too, is Lytle Biggs, who serves as impudent chorus with a cynicism that plays over the face of the story, cheapening and corroding all it touches. Howe wrote about Twin Mounds as Crabbe wrote about the English village—determined, it seems, to paint it “As Truth will paint it, and as Bards will not”: a neighborhood as barren of beauty and elevation as of lakes and mountains; dogmatic without being religious, ambitious enough without having any intelligent aims, industrious but futile. A Parisian never wrote more contemptuously of provincial life. And yet beneath this cold exterior, which will not let the narrative or the dialogue be flexible for one moment, lurks authentic power. No shallow mind could have conceived the blind, black, impossible passion of Joe Erring, who loves like a backwoods Othello; no tepid mind could have conducted such a passion through its catastrophe to the purgation and tranquillity which succeed. That Howe, though he wrote another novel or two, ended his career as a novelist almost where he began it, meant a grave loss to American fiction. He made himself a successful country journalist, a wise and ineffably disillusioned country sage; but the energy of his imagination sought other channels than the novel.
Howe had taken a step beyond Edward Eggleston on the way to that stiffening of the conscience which brought the naturalism of the next decade, but in the eighties he had no fellow except Joseph Kirkland of Illinois, who wrote the crude, truthful Zury (1887). Elsewhere local color produced few novels that need to be called by name. Cable wrote others for Louisiana: Charles Egbert Craddock now and then turned away from the short story with her Tennessee material; as did Sarah Orne Jewett in New England, H. C. Bunner in New York, and Richard Malcolm Johnston in Georgia. An unusual control over a diversity of sections appears in the work of Constance Fenimore Woolson, a grandniece of Fenimore Cooper, who during the eighties had a promise that seemed to rank her little below Howells and James and Crawford. She lived in turn in the Great Lakes region, particularly Mackinac, in the devastated, reviving South of Reconstruction times, and in Italy, applying her art to all of her neighborhoods. Henry James found her deserving of a fairly extended critique from a pen which did not often condescend to the underwoods of literature. Her stories are perhaps as good as her novels, but she has not quite survived by virtue of either. And yet East Angels (1886), that glowing, rich-hued picture of the Florida of the tourist, just misses being a classic. To be mistress of all the local colors will not make a writer even a minor classic unless something else is added—some superior grace as in Cable or superior veracity as in E. W. Howe.
Little as most of the novels of the period touched upon its public affairs, some of them were not silent. Albion Winegar Tourgée’s A Fool’s Errand (1879) called attention to the problem of the freedman. Henry Adams in Democracy (1880) drew a caustic picture of society and politics in Washington—a city strangely neglected in American literature, which can hardly point to a dozen political novels of any merit whatever. John Hay’s The Bread-Winners (1884) made a sensation by its defense of the old economic order against the increasing claims of labor. Margaret Deland’s John Ward, Preacher (1888), like the exactly contemporary Robert Elsmere of Mrs. Humphry Ward, aroused wide controversy by its account of a husband and wife so divided on doctrinal grounds that their lives are shattered. In the American novel it is the husband who is orthodox and the wife who is latitudinarian, but here as in the English book stress falls upon the consequences to love of such a difference. Though no civilized human being can now do more than stare at the zeal which impels John Ward in his efforts to save his wife’s soul by teaching her to believe in the fires of hell, by no means all the passion of the book has faded out. In the same year with John Ward appeared a work of fiction which caught the immediate public as hardly any book of its theme had ever done before. The book was Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward 2000–1887, and the theme was communism. Hundreds of thousands of copies were sold with a tumult of acclamation; the book went round the world; a political party—the Nationalist party—was founded on Bellamy’s doctrines. Howells’s A Hazard of New Fortunes and his Altrurian writings bear witness to the influence Bellamy exerted in literary circles. Reversing the scheme of The Connecticut Yankee Bellamy allows his narrator to sleep until the year 2000 and then to wake upon a Utopian Boston which, like the rest of the world, has moved forward, without revolution, to a rational adjustment of production and distribution, and has perfected the conditions of human life. In his glad millennium all capital belongs to the community and all labor contributes to it; the inequality of reward has disappeared, for men and women all share alike, however different may be the tasks to which they are assigned by the most careful selection; intelligent planning has increased the wealth of the community, wealth has increased leisure, and leisure has increased joy and goodness. Bellamy’s specific solutions of the ancient problem matter less to the history of American fiction than the fact that he found an enormous public ready to snatch from his romance some sort of consolation in a vast discontent.
At the opposite pole from Bellamy was Frank R. Stockton (1834–1902), in whom whimsy reached something like its apogee. Stockton, a Philadelphian, first worked at wood-engraving but deserted it for literature, which he reached by the unusual avenue of fairy tales and juvenile journalism. As in his fairy tales he had made his fanciful creatures behave, as far as possible, after the manner of the real world, so into his maturer stories of the real world he constantly infused a fairy irresponsibility. His earliest important book, Rudder Grange (1879), illustrates all his qualities. The suggestion came from an actual maid in Stockton’s household, whom he called Pomona both in fact and in fiction, and around whose preposterous deeds and words and tastes he built up a little cycle of improbabilities. Pomona, after a youth largely devoted to the kind of literature that entranced Tom Sawyer, marries a farmer who has ague at the altar; spends her honeymoon partly in a lunatic asylum as guest not inmate; and later has a child which so much occupies her mistress that the master of the house hires another child to amuse himself with. The household which Pomona adorns is joyfully mad. Part of the time it inhabits a canal boat. Later it lets its house so that master and mistress can have the fun of tenting on the estate, though after a little they become bored and take refuge in their own house, which is that same day deserted by the pair which has leased it but now prefers to live in the tent, which they have discovered without knowing to whom it belongs. Still later the Rudder Grangers find a deserted tavern in which they take immense delight, disturbed only by travelers who insist on being entertained there. To the outward eye the novel resembles realism. The characters look real, they speak like beings who are real enough. But their adventures are the adventures of a Gilbert and Sullivan opera—one rollicking confusion which, so popular did it prove, had later to be continued in The Rudder Grangers Abroad (1891) and Pomona’s Travels (1894).
Stockton’s fancy found the short story peculiarly congenial, and the dilemma he invented for his brief tale The Lady or the Tiger? (1882) won him his largest single applause. On the whole, however, his masterpiece was The Casting Away of Mrs. Lecks and Mrs. Aleshine (1886), which also had a sequel, The Dusantes (1888). The dauntless Mrs. Lecks and Mrs. Aleshine come, like Pomona, from reality, from two middle-aged women who knew too little of the world outside of their village ever to be surprised at anything which could possibly happen to them elsewhere. To them in the story it happens that they are wrecked in the Pacific Ocean, paddle themselves in life-preservers, using oars as brooms, to an island which might have been deserted but which instead has a comfortable house on it, and there begin housekeeping as cheerfully as if they were in Meadowville, scrupulously depositing each week in a ginger jar on the mantelpiece a sum for board, minus a fair charge for their services in doing the housework. After a train of incidents which joyfully, though not too obviously, parody all the literature of shipwreck, they are restored to the United States; but they have left behind them a letter which so piques the curiosity of the real owners, the Dusantes, that those migratory personages follow Mrs. Leeks and Mrs. Aleshine and their companions to the United States, especially to return the money which Mr. Dusante is far too hospitable to be willing to keep. Mr. Dusante, who has an adopted mother with him, encounters in Mrs. Leeks a moral principle equal to his own and finds she will not take back the money; the sequel is largely devoted to the fate of the ginger jar. If Stockton’s fantastic invention is here at its most luxuriant, so is his manner at its gravest. His tongue is only stealthily in his check, and his voice is as calm and level as if he were reciting the multiplication table. Thus inspired liars lie—sailors back from distant voyages and yarning to landlubbers, cowboys “stringing” tenderfeet with tales of local dangers, Sindbads and Munchausens.
Stockton dictated his stories lying comfortably in a hammock in summer and in an easy chair in colder weather. His delight in circumstantial mendacity was so unfailing that he often spun his matter out too thin, and he never concerned himself with the problem of structure beyond what he needed to give point to an episode. His variety came largely from within. At the same time, he was observant of costume and dialect. He amused himself particularly with the negroes and certain odd whites whom he encountered in the South (Virginia was latterly his home) and who make The Late Mrs. Null (1886) a continual delight. In New Jersey, where he spent much of his life within surburban distance of New York, he constantly studied the village types, and above all the sailors along the coast, whose habits with regard to the sober truth fell in admirably with his own. Stockton’s mariners are among his happiest devices. They furnish a natural excuse for fibbing, and they themselves, rakish and tarry, give comic opera touches which nothing else in Stockton quite equals. The three seamen who in The Dusantes tattoo the barn and set out onions according to nautical designs may be said to head the humorous crew, but they have many rivals for preëminence. Stockton’s invention rarely flagged. The Adventures of Captain Horn (1895) plays with the search for hidden treasure in South America: its sequel, Mrs. Cliff’s Yacht (1896), goes larking among pirates, who interested Stockton in other books as well. He cheerfully perlustrated the strangest climes and ages, with a blithe inconsequence heaping all his visions together, as if he were some jovial Spenser taking a vacation in Fairyland. He delighted, too, in imaginary science, like that which in The Great Stone of Sardis (1898) proves that the center of the earth is one immense crystal, and in imaginary machines such as those for making war prohibitive in The Great War Syndicate (1889). In such directions he carried his fooling to an extravagance and a tenuity which have punished him with inpermanence, the fate, indeed, of most lighter comedy. But in his three or four genuine successes he achieved more with merry farce than any other American novelist. Stockton should have credit, too, for his services in rendering popular the briefer type of novel called in America the novelette, the vogue of which was established during the eighties and early nineties.
With Stockton may be mentioned Eugene Field, much better known for his verse and his comic skits than for his fiction, and yet the author of at least one novel—if it may be called a novel—which has achieved among book-lovers a little immortality. The Love Affairs of a Bibliomaniac (1896) chronicles no passions more violent than the desire for books, but it chronicles that desire in forms as diversified as Field’s own career as a collector, and in a tone as piquant and whimsical as that of his own personality. The tale is packed with charming episodes and vagaries recognizable by all the book-hunting tribe; indeed, it exhibits, in an unpretentious way, an unusual erudition playing over the amiable regions of literature which Field himself had explored. But the bibliomaniac of the narrative, though largely studied from Field’s own tastes, is also an actual creation, extended, if not enlarged, from the life by the addition of adventures which every book-collector has imagined himself as having, and portrayed with the sprightly humor and wistful grace which Field generally reserved for his verse. Something like the same quaint or homely touches may be found in two other novels of the period which both exploit elderly, eccentric, charming heroes: F. Hopkinson Smith’s Colonel Carter of Cartersville (1891), displaying the type of old school Virginia gentleman now firmly fixed in the popular imagination; and Edward Noyes Westcott’s David Harum (1898), a novel dominated by a shrewd, racy-tongued upstate New Yorker who holds a comfortable place in the long American tradition of the unlettered philosopher and humorist.