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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21). rn VOLUME XVII. Later National Literature, Part II.

XI. The Later Novel: Howells

§ 28. S. Weir Mitchell

But the later historical romance is best studied in the work of Dr. Silas Weir Mitchell (1829–1913) of Pennsylvania, who, on the advice of Oliver Wendell Holmes, early set aside his literary ambitions until he should have established himself in a profession, became one of the most eminent of medical specialists, particularly in nervous diseases, and only after he was fifty gave much time to verse or fiction, which, indeed, he continued to produce with no diminution of power until the very year of his death. His special knowledge enabled him to write authoritatively of difficult and wayward states of body and mind; as in The Case of George Dedlow (1880), so circumstantial in its impossibilities, Roland Blake (1886), which George Meredith greatly admired, The Autobiography of a Quack (1900), concerning the dishonourable fringes of the medical profession, and Constance Trescott (1905), considered by Dr. Mitchell his best-constructed novel and certainly his most thorough-going study of a pathological mood. His psychological stories, however, had on the whole neither the appeal nor the merit of his historical romances, which began with Hephzibah Guinness (1880) and extended to Westways (1913). Westways is a large and truthful chronicle of the effects of the Civil War in Pennsylvania, but Mitchell’s best work belongs to the Revolutionary and Washington cycle: Hugh Wynne Free Quaker Sometimes Brevet Lieutenant-Colonel on the Staff of his Excellency General Washington (1896), The Youth of Washington Told in the Form of an Autobiography (1904), and The Red City A Novel of the Second Administration of President Washington (1908). Dr. Mitchell’s own favourite among his books, The Adventures of François, Foundling, Thief, Juggler, and Fencing-Master during the French Revolution (1898), stands as close to the American stories as did Paris to the city of Franklin in the later eighteenth century. Revolutionary these narratives are only by virtue of the time in which they take place, for their sympathies are almost wholly with the aristocrats in France, with the respectable and Federalist classes in America. Philadelphia, generally the centre of the action, appears under a softer, mellower light than has been thrown by our romaneers upon any other Revolutionary city, and Washington, though drawn, like Philadelphia, as much to the life as Dr. Mitchell could draw him, is a demigod still.

By the time The Red City appeared its type was losing vogue, but Hugh Wynne and The Adventures of François came on the high tide of the remarkable outburst of historical romance just preceding the Spanish War. The best books of the sort need but to be named: Mark Twain’s Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc (1896), Frederic Jesup Stimson’s King Noanett (1896), James Lane Allen’s The Choir Invisible (1897), Charles Major’s When Knighthood Was in Flower (1898), Mary Johnston’s Prisoners of Hope (1898) and To Have and To Hold (1899), Paul Leicester Ford’s Janice Meredith (1899), Winston Churchill’s Richard Carvel (1899) and The Crisis (1901), Booth Tarkington’s Monsieur Beaucaire (1900), Maurice Thompson’s Alice of Old Vincennes (1900), Henry Harland’s The Cardinal’s Snuff-Box (1901). In part they were an American version of the movement led in England by Robert Louis Stevenson, Rider Haggard, Conan Doyle, and Anthony Hope; the “Ruritanian” romance, for instance, of Anthony Hope was so popular as to be delightfully parodied in George Ade’s The Slim Princess (1907); all these tales were courtly, high-sounding, decorative, and poetical. But their enormous popularity—some of them sold half a million copies in the two or three years of their brief heyday—points to some native condition. In the history of the American imagination they must be thought of as marking that moment at which, in the excitement which accompanied the Spanish War, the nation suddenly rediscovered a longer and more picturesque past than it had been popularly aware of since the Civil War. The episode was brief, and most of the books now seem gilt where some of them once looked like gold, but it was a vivid moment in the national consciousness, and if it founded no new legends it deepened old ones.