Story type: Essay
One of the worst characteristics of modern fiction is its so-called truth to nature. For fiction is an art, as painting is, as sculpture is, as acting is. A photograph of a natural object is not art; nor is the plaster cast of a man’s face, nor is the bare setting on the stage of an actual occurrence. Art requires an idealization of nature. The amateur, though she may be a lady, who attempts to represent upon the stage the lady of the drawing-room, usually fails to convey to the spectators the impression of a lady. She lacks the art by which the trained actress, who may not be a lady, succeeds. The actual transfer to the stage of the drawing-room and its occupants, with the behavior common in well-bred society, would no doubt fail of the intended dramatic effect, and the spectators would declare the representation unnatural.
However our jargon of criticism may confound terms, we do not need to be reminded that art and nature are distinct; that art, though dependent on nature, is a separate creation; that art is selection and idealization, with a view to impressing the mind with human, or even higher than human, sentiments and ideas. We may not agree whether the perfect man and woman ever existed, but we do know that the highest representations of them in form–that in the old Greek sculptures–were the result of artistic selection of parts of many living figures.
When we praise our recent fiction for its photographic fidelity to nature we condemn it, for we deny to it the art which would give it value. We forget that the creation of the novel should be, to a certain extent, a synthetic process, and impart to human actions that ideal quality which we demand in painting. Heine regards Cervantes as the originator of the modern novel. The older novels sprang from the poetry of the Middle Ages; their themes were knightly adventure, their personages were the nobility; the common people did not figure in them. These romances, which had degenerated into absurdities, Cervantes overthrew by “Don Quixote.” But in putting an end to the old romances he created a new school of fiction, called the modern novel, by introducing into his romance of pseudo-knighthood a faithful description of the lower classes, and intermingling the phases of popular life. But he had no one-sided tendency to portray the vulgar only; he brought together the higher and the lower in society, to serve as light and shade, and the aristocratic element was as prominent as the popular. This noble and chivalrous element disappears in the novels of the English who imitated Cervantes. “These English novelists since Richardson’s reign,” says Heine, “are prosaic natures; to the prudish spirit of their time even pithy descriptions of the life of the common people are repugnant, and we see on yonder side of the Channel those bourgeoisie novels arise, wherein the petty humdrum life of the middle classes is depicted.” But Scott appeared, and effected a restoration of the balance in fiction. As Cervantes had introduced the democratic element into romances, so Scott replaced the aristocratic element, when it had disappeared, and only a prosaic, bourgeoisie fiction existed. He restored to romances the symmetry which we admire in “Don Quixote.” The characteristic feature of Scott’s historical romances, in the opinion of the great German critic, is the harmony between the artistocratic and democratic elements.
This is true, but is it the last analysis of the subject? Is it a sufficient account of the genius of Cervantes and Scott that they combined in their romances a representation of the higher and lower classes? Is it not of more importance how they represented them? It is only a part of the achievement of Cervantes that he introduced the common people into fiction; it is his higher glory that he idealized his material; and it is Scott’s distinction also that he elevated into artistic creations both nobility and commonalty. In short, the essential of fiction is not diversity of social life, but artistic treatment of whatever is depicted. The novel may deal wholly with an aristocracy, or wholly with another class, but it must idealize the nature it touches into art. The fault of the bourgeoisie novels, of which Heine complains, is not that they treated of one class only, and excluded a higher social range, but that they treated it without art and without ideality. In nature there is nothing vulgar to the poet, and in human life there is nothing uninteresting to the artist; but nature and human life, for the purposes of fiction, need a creative genius. The importation into the novel of the vulgar, sordid, and ignoble in life is always unbearable, unless genius first fuses the raw material in its alembic.
When, therefore, we say that one of the worst characteristics of modern fiction is its so-called truth to nature, we mean that it disregards the higher laws of art, and attempts to give us unidealized pictures of life. The failure is not that vulgar themes are treated, but that the treatment is vulgar; not that common life is treated, but that the treatment is common; not that care is taken with details, but that no selection is made, and everything is photographed regardless of its artistic value. I am sure that no one ever felt any repugnance on being introduced by Cervantes to the muleteers, contrabandistas, servants and serving-maids, and idle vagabonds of Spain, any more than to an acquaintance with the beggar-boys and street gamins on the canvases of Murillo. And I believe that the philosophic reason of the disgust of Heine and of every critic with the English bourgeoisie novels, describing the petty, humdrum life of the middle classes, was simply the want of art in the writers; the failure on their part to see that a literal transcript of nature is poor stuff in literature. We do not need to go back to Richardson’s time for illustrations of that truth. Every week the English press–which is even a greater sinner in this respect than the American–turns out a score of novels which are mediocre, not from their subjects, but from their utter lack of the artistic quality. It matters not whether they treat of middle-class life, of low, slum life, or of drawing-room life and lords and ladies; they are equally flat and dreary. Perhaps the most inane thing ever put forth in the name of literature is the so-called domestic novel, an indigestible, culinary sort of product, that might be named the doughnut of fiction. The usual apology for it is that it depicts family life with fidelity. Its characters are supposed to act and talk as people act and talk at home and in society. I trust this is a libel, but, for the sake of the argument, suppose they do. Was ever produced so insipid a result? They are called moral; in the higher sense they are immoral, for they tend to lower the moral tone and stamina of every reader. It needs genius to import into literature ordinary conversation, petty domestic details, and the commonplace and vulgar phases of life. A report of ordinary talk, which appears as dialogue in domestic novels, may be true to nature; if it is, it is not worth writing or worth reading. I cannot see that it serves any good purpose whatever. Fortunately, we have in our day illustrations of a different treatment of the vulgar. I do not know any more truly realistic pictures of certain aspects of New England life than are to be found in Judd’s “Margaret,” wherein are depicted exceedingly pinched and ignoble social conditions. Yet the characters and the life are drawn with the artistic purity of Flaxman’s illustrations of Homer. Another example is Thomas Hardy’s “Far from the Madding Crowd.” Every character in it is of the lower class in England. But what an exquisite creation it is! You have to turn back to Shakespeare for any talk of peasants and clowns and shepherds to compare with the conversations in this novel, so racy are they of the soil, and yet so touched with the finest art, the enduring art. Here is not the realism of the photograph, but of the artist; that is to say, it is nature idealized.
When we criticise our recent fiction it is obvious that we ought to remember that it only conforms to the tendencies of our social life, our prevailing ethics, and to the art conditions of our time. Literature is never in any age an isolated product. It is closely related to the development or retrogression of the time in all departments of life. The literary production of our day seems, and no doubt is, more various than that of any other, and it is not easy to fix upon its leading tendency. It is claimed for its fiction, however, that it is analytic and realistic, and that much of it has certain other qualities that make it a new school in art. These aspects of it I wish to consider in this paper.
It is scarcely possible to touch upon our recent fiction, any more than upon our recent poetry, without taking into account what is called the Esthetic movement–a movement more prominent in England than elsewhere. A slight contemplation of this reveals its resemblance to the Romantic movement in Germany, of which the brothers Schlegel were apostles, in the latter part of the last century. The movements are alike in this: that they both sought inspiration in mediaevalism, in feudalism, in the symbols of a Christianity that ran to mysticism, in the quaint, strictly pre-Raphael art which was supposed to be the result of a simple faith. In the one case, the artless and childlike remains of old German pictures and statuary were exhumed and set up as worthy of imitation; in the other, we have carried out in art, in costume, and in domestic life, so far as possible, what has been wittily and accurately described as “stained-glass attitudes.” With all its peculiar vagaries, the English school is essentially a copy of the German, in its return to mediaevalism. The two movements have a further likeness, in that they are found accompanied by a highly symbolized religious revival. English aestheticism would probably disown any religious intention, although it has been accused of a refined interest in Pan and Venus; but in all its feudal sympathies it goes along with the religious art and vestment revival, the return to symbolic ceremonies, monastic vigils, and sisterhoods. Years ago, an acute writer in the Catholic World claimed Dante Gabriel Rossetti as a Catholic writer, from the internal evidence of his poems. The German Romanticism, which was fostered by the Romish priesthood, ended, or its disciples ended, in the bosom of the Roman Catholic Church. It will be interesting to note in what ritualistic harbor the aestheticism of our day will finally moor. That two similar revivals should come so near together in time makes us feel that the world moves onward–if it does move onward–in circular figures of very short radii. There seems to be only one thing certain in our Christian era, and that is a periodic return to classic models; the only stable standards of resort seem to be Greek art and literature.
The characteristics which are prominent, when we think of our recent fiction, are a wholly unidealized view of human society, which has got the name of realism; a delight in representing the worst phases of social life; an extreme analysis of persons and motives; the sacrifice of action to psychological study; the substitution of studies of character for anything like a story; a notion that it is not artistic, and that it is untrue to nature, to bring any novel to a definite consummation, and especially to end it happily; and a despondent tone about society, politics, and the whole drift of modern life. Judged by our fiction, we are in an irredeemably bad way. There is little beauty, joy, or light-heartedness in living; the spontaneity and charm of life are analyzed out of existence; sweet girls, made to love and be loved, are extinct; melancholy Jaques never meets a Rosalind in the forest of Arden, and if he sees her in the drawing-room he poisons his pleasure with the thought that she is scheming and artificial; there are no happy marriages –indeed, marriage itself is almost too inartistic to be permitted by our novelists, unless it can be supplemented by a divorce, and art is supposed to deny any happy consummation of true love. In short, modern society is going to the dogs, notwithstanding money is only three and a half per cent. It is a gloomy business life, at the best. Two learned but despondent university professors met, not long ago, at an afternoon “coffee,” and drew sympathetically together in a corner. “What a world this would be,” said one, “without coffee!” “Yes,” replied the other, stirring the fragrant cup in a dejected aspect “yes; but what a hell of a world it is with coffee!”
The analytic method in fiction is interesting, when used by a master of dissection, but it has this fatal defect in a novel–it destroys illusion. We want to think that the characters in a story are real persons. We cannot do this if we see the author set them up as if they were marionettes, and take them to pieces every few pages, and show their interior structure, and the machinery by which they are moved. Not only is the illusion gone, but the movement of the story, if there is a story, is retarded, till the reader loses all enjoyment in impatience and weariness. You find yourself saying, perhaps, What a very clever fellow the author is! What an ingenious creation this character is! How brightly the author makes his people talk! This is high praise, but by no means the highest, and when we reflect we see how immeasurably inferior, in fiction, the analytic method is to the dramatic. In the dramatic method the characters appear, and show what they are by what they do and say; the reader studies their motives, and a part of his enjoyment is in analyzing them, and his vanity is flattered by the trust reposed in his perspicacity. We realize how unnecessary minute analysis of character and long descriptions are in reading a drama by Shakespeare, in which the characters are so vividly presented to us in action and speech, without the least interference of the author in description, that we regard them as persons with whom we might have real relations, and not as bundles of traits and qualities. True, the conditions of dramatic art and the art of the novel are different, in that the drama can dispense with delineations, for its characters are intended to be presented to the eye; but all the same, a good drama will explain itself without the aid of actors, and there is no doubt that it is the higher art in the novel, when once the characters are introduced, to treat them dramatically, and let them work out their own destiny according to their characters. It is a truism to say that when the reader perceives that the author can compel his characters to do what he pleases all interest in them as real persons is gone. In a novel of mere action and adventure, a lower order of fiction, where all the interest centres in the unraveling of a plot, of course this does not so much matter.
Not long ago, in Edinburgh, I amused myself in looking up some of the localities made famous in Scott’s romances, which are as real in the mind as any historical places. Afterwards I read “The Heart of Midlothian.” I was surprised to find that, as a work of art, it was inferior to my recollection of it. Its style is open to the charge of prolixity, and even of slovenliness in some parts; and it does not move on with increasing momentum and concentration to a climax, as many of Scott’s novels do; the story drags along in the disposition of one character after another. Yet, when I had finished the book and put it away, a singular thing happened. It suddenly came to me that in reading it I had not once thought of Scott as the maker; it had never occurred to me that he had created the people in whose fortunes I had been so intensely absorbed; and I never once had felt how clever the novelist was in the naturally dramatic dialogues of the characters. In short, it had not entered my mind to doubt the existence of Jeanie and Effie Deans, and their father, and Reuben Butler, and the others, who seem as real as historical persons in Scotch history. And when I came to think of it afterwards, reflecting upon the assumptions of the modern realistic school, I found that some scenes, notably the night attack on the old Tolbooth, were as real to me as if I had read them in a police report of a newspaper of the day. Was Scott, then, only a reporter? Far from it, as you would speedily see if he had thrown into the novel a police report of the occurrences at the Tolbooth before art had shorn it of its irrelevancies, magnified its effective and salient points, given events their proper perspective, and the whole picture due light and shade.
The sacrifice of action to some extent to psychological evolution in modern fiction may be an advance in the art as an intellectual entertainment, if the writer does not make that evolution his end, and does not forget that the indispensable thing in a novel is the story. The novel of mere adventure or mere plot, it need not be urged, is of a lower order than that in which the evolution of characters and their interaction make the story. The highest fiction is that which embodies both; that is, the story in which action is the result of mental and spiritual forces in play. And we protest against the notion that the novel of the future is to be, or should be, merely a study of, or an essay or a series of analytic essays on, certain phases of social life.
It is not true that civilization or cultivation has bred out of the world the liking for a story. In this the most highly educated Londoner and the Egyptian fellah meet on common human ground. The passion for a story has no more died out than curiosity, or than the passion of love. The truth is not that stories are not demanded, but that the born raconteur and story-teller is a rare person. The faculty of telling a story is a much rarer gift than the ability to analyze character and even than the ability truly to draw character. It may be a higher or a lower power, but it is rarer. It is a natural gift, and it seems that no amount of culture can attain it, any more than learning can make a poet. Nor is the complaint well founded that the stories have all been told, the possible plots all been used, and the combinations of circumstances exhausted. It is no doubt our individual experience that we hear almost every day–and we hear nothing so eagerly–some new story, better or worse, but new in its exhibition of human character, and in the combination of events. And the strange, eventful histories of human life will no more be exhausted than the possible arrangements of mathematical numbers. We might as well say that there are no more good pictures to be painted as that there are no more good stories to be told.
Equally baseless is the assumption that it is inartistic and untrue to nature to bring a novel to a definite consummation, and especially to end it happily. Life, we are told, is full of incompletion, of broken destinies, of failures, of romances that begin but do not end, of ambitions and purposes frustrated, of love crossed, of unhappy issues, or a resultless play of influences. Well, but life is full, also, of endings, of the results in concrete action of character, of completed dramas. And we expect and give, in the stories we hear and tell in ordinary intercourse, some point, some outcome, an end of some sort. If you interest me in the preparations of two persons who are starting on a journey, and expend all your ingenuity in describing their outfit and their characters, and do not tell me where they went or what befell them afterwards, I do not call that a story. Nor am I any better satisfied when you describe two persons whom you know, whose characters are interesting, and who become involved in all manner of entanglements, and then stop your narration; and when I ask, say you have not the least idea whether they got out of their difficulties, or what became of them. In real life we do not call that a story where everything is left unconcluded and in the air. In point of fact, romances are daily beginning and daily ending, well or otherwise, under our observation.
Should they always end well in the novel? I am very far from saying that. Tragedy and the pathos of failure have their places in literature as well as in life. I only say that, artistically, a good ending is as proper as a bad ending. Yet the main object of the novel is to entertain, and the best entertainment is that which lifts the imagination and quickens the spirit; to lighten the burdens of life by taking us for a time out of our humdrum and perhaps sordid conditions, so that we can see familiar life somewhat idealized, and probably see it all the more truly from an artistic point of view. For the majority of the race, in its hard lines, fiction is an inestimable boon. Incidentally the novel may teach, encourage, refine, elevate. Even for these purposes, that novel is the best which shows us the best possibilities of our lives–the novel which gives hope and cheer instead of discouragement and gloom. Familiarity with vice and sordidness in fiction is a low entertainment, and of doubtful moral value, and their introduction is unbearable if it is not done with the idealizing touch of the artist.
Do not misunderstand me to mean that common and low life are not fit subjects of fiction, or that vice is not to be lashed by the satirist, or that the evils of a social state are never to be exposed in the novel. For this, also, is an office of the novel, as it is of the drama, to hold the mirror up to nature, and to human nature as it exhibits itself. But when the mirror shows nothing but vice and social disorder, leaving out the saving qualities that keep society on the whole, and family life as a rule, as sweet and good as they are, the mirror is not held up to nature, but more likely reflects a morbid mind. Still it must be added that the study of unfortunate social conditions is a legitimate one for the author to make; and that we may be in no state to judge justly of his exposure while the punishment is being inflicted, or while the irritation is fresh. For, no doubt, the reader winces often because the novel reveals to himself certain possible baseness, selfishness, and meanness. Of this, however, I (speaking for myself) may be sure: that the artist who so represents vulgar life that I am more in love with my kind, the satirist who so depicts vice and villainy that I am strengthened in my moral fibre, has vindicated his choice of material. On the contrary, those novelists are not justified whose forte it seems to be to so set forth goodness as to make it unattractive.
But we come back to the general proposition that the indispensable condition of the novel is that it shall entertain. And for this purpose the world is not ashamed to own that it wants, and always will want, a story–a story that has an ending; and if not a good ending, then one that in noble tragedy lifts up our nature into a high plane of sacrifice and pathos. In proof of this we have only to refer to the masterpieces of fiction which the world cherishes and loves to recur to.
I confess that I am harassed with the incomplete romances, that leave me, when the book is closed, as one might be on a waste plain at midnight, abandoned by his conductor, and without a lantern. I am tired of accompanying people for hours through disaster and perplexity and misunderstanding, only to see them lost in a thick mist at last. I am weary of going to funerals, which are not my funerals, however chatty and amusing the undertaker may be. I confess that I should like to see again the lovely heroine, the sweet woman, capable of a great passion and a great sacrifice; and I do not object if the novelist tries her to the verge of endurance, in agonies of mind and in perils, subjecting her to wasting sicknesses even, if he only brings her out at the end in a blissful compensation of her troubles, and endued with a new and sweeter charm. No doubt it is better for us all, and better art, that in the novel of society the destiny should be decided by character. What an artistic and righteous consummation it is when we meet the shrewd and wicked old Baroness Bernstein at Continental gaming-tables, and feel that there was no other logical end for the worldly and fascinating Beatrix of Henry Esmond! It is one of the great privileges of fiction to right the wrongs of life, to do justice to the deserving and the vicious. It is wholesome for us to contemplate the justice, even if we do not often see it in society. It is true that hypocrisy and vulgar self-seeking often succeed in life, occupying high places, and make their exit in the pageantry of honored obsequies. Yet always the man is conscious of the hollowness of his triumph, and the world takes a pretty accurate measure of it. It is the privilege of the novelist, without introducing into such a career what is called disaster, to satisfy our innate love of justice by letting us see the true nature of such prosperity. The unscrupulous man amasses wealth, lives in luxury and splendor, and dies in the odor of respectability. His poor and honest neighbor, whom he has wronged and defrauded, lives in misery, and dies in disappointment and penury. The novelist cannot reverse the facts without such a shock to our experience as shall destroy for us the artistic value of his fiction, and bring upon his work the deserved reproach of indiscriminately “rewarding the good and punishing the bad.” But we have a right to ask that he shall reveal the real heart and character of this passing show of life; for not to do this, to content himself merely with exterior appearances, is for the majority of his readers to efface the lines between virtue and vice. And we ask this not for the sake of the moral lesson, but because not to do it is, to our deep consciousness, inartistic and untrue to our judgment of life as it goes on. Thackeray used to say that all his talent was in his eyes; meaning that he was only an observer and reporter of what he saw, and not a Providence to rectify human affairs. The great artist undervalued his genius. He reported what he saw as Raphael and Murillo reported what they saw. With his touch of genius he assigned to everything its true value, moving us to tenderness, to pity, to scorn, to righteous indignation, to sympathy with humanity. I find in him the highest art, and not that indifference to the great facts and deep currents and destinies of human life, that want of enthusiasm and sympathy, which has got the name of “art for art’s sake.” Literary fiction is a barren product if it wants sympathy and love for men. “Art for art’s sake” is a good and defensible phrase, if our definition of art includes the ideal, and not otherwise.
I do not know how it has come about that in so large a proportion of recent fiction it is held to be artistic to look almost altogether upon the shady and the seamy side of life, giving to this view the name of “realism”; to select the disagreeable, the vicious, the unwholesome; to give us for our companions, in our hours of leisure and relaxation, only the silly and the weak-minded woman, the fast and slangy girl, the intrigante and the “shady”–to borrow the language of the society she seeks–the hero of irresolution, the prig, the vulgar, and the vicious; to serve us only with the foibles of the fashionable, the low tone of the gay, the gilded riffraff of our social state; to drag us forever along the dizzy, half-fractured precipice of the seventh commandment; to bring us into relations only with the sordid and the common; to force us to sup with unwholesome company on misery and sensuousness, in tales so utterly unpleasant that we are ready to welcome any disaster as a relief; and then–the latest and finest touch of modern art–to leave the whole weltering mass in a chaos, without conclusion and without possible issue. And this is called a picture of real life! Heavens! Is it true that in England, where a great proportion of the fiction we describe and loathe is produced; is it true that in our New England society there is nothing but frivolity, sordidness, decay of purity and faith, ignoble ambition and ignoble living? Is there no charm in social life–no self-sacrifice, devotion, courage to stem materialistic conditions, and live above them? Are there no noble women, sensible, beautiful, winning, with the grace that all the world loves, albeit with the feminine weaknesses that make all the world hope? Is there no manliness left? Are there no homes where the tempter does not live with the tempted in a mush of sentimental affinity? Or is it, in fact, more artistic to ignore all these, and paint only the feeble and the repulsive in our social state? The feeble, the sordid, and the repulsive in our social state nobody denies, nor does anybody deny the exceeding cleverness with which our social disorders are reproduced in fiction by a few masters of their art; but is it not time that it should be considered good art to show something of the clean and bright side?
This is pre-eminently the age of the novel. The development of variety of fiction since the days of Scott and Cooper is prodigious. The prejudice against novel-reading is quite broken down, since fiction has taken all fields for its province; everybody reads novels. Three-quarters of the books taken from the circulating library are stories; they make up half the library of the Sunday-schools. If a writer has anything to say, or thinks he has, he knows that he can most certainly reach the ear of the public by the medium of a story. So we have novels for children; novels religious, scientific, historical, archaeological, psychological, pathological, total-abstinence; novels of travel, of adventure and exploration; novels domestic, and the perpetual spawn of books called novels of society. Not only is everything turned into a story, real or so called, but there must be a story in everything. The stump-speaker holds his audience by well-worn stories; the preacher wakes up his congregation by a graphic narrative; and the Sunday-school teacher leads his children into all goodness by the entertaining path of romance; we even had a President who governed the country nearly by anecdotes. The result of this universal demand for fiction is necessarily an enormous supply, and as everybody writes, without reference to gifts, the product is mainly trash, and trash of a deleterious sort; for bad art in literature is bad morals. I am not sure but the so-called domestic, the diluted, the “goody,” namby-pamby, unrobust stories, which are so largely read by school-girls, young ladies, and women, do more harm than the “knowing,” audacious, wicked ones,–also, it is reported, read by them, and written largely by their own sex. For minds enfeebled and relaxed by stories lacking even intellectual fibre are in a poor condition to meet the perils of life. This is not the place for discussing the stories written for the young and for the Sunday-school. It seems impossible to check the flow of them, now that so much capital is invested in this industry; but I think that healthy public sentiment is beginning to recognize the truth that the excessive reading of this class of literature by the young is weakening to the mind, besides being a serious hindrance to study and to attention to the literature that has substance.
In his account of the Romantic School in Germany, Heine says, “In the breast of a nation’s authors there always lies the image of its future, and the critic who, with a knife of sufficient keenness, dissects a new poet can easily prophesy, as from the entrails of a sacrificial animal, what shape matters will assume in Germany.” Now if all the poets and novelists of England and America today were cut up into little pieces (and we might sacrifice a few for the sake of the experiment), there is no inspecting augur who could divine therefrom our literary future. The diverse indications would puzzle the most acute dissector. Lost in the variety, the multiplicity of minute details, the refinements of analysis and introspection, he would miss any leading indications. For with all its variety, it seems to me that one characteristic of recent fiction is its narrowness–narrowness of vision and of treatment. It deals with lives rather than with life. Lacking ideality, it fails of broad perception. We are accustomed to think that with the advent of the genuine novel of society, in the first part of this century, a great step forward was taken in fiction. And so there was. If the artist did not use a big canvas, he adopted a broad treatment. But the tendency now is to push analysis of individual peculiarities to an extreme, and to substitute a study of traits for a representation of human life.
It scarcely need be said that it is not multitude of figures on a literary canvas that secures breadth of treatment. The novel may be narrow, though it swarms with a hundred personages. It may be as wide as life, as high as imagination can lift itself; it may image to us a whole social state, though it pats in motion no more persons than we made the acquaintance of in one of the romances of Hawthorne. Consider for a moment how Thackeray produced his marvelous results. We follow with him, in one of his novels of society, the fortunes of a very few people. They are so vividly portrayed that we are convinced the author must have known them in that great world with which he was so familiar; we should not be surprised to meet any of them in the streets of London. When we visit the Charterhouse School, and see the old forms where the boys sat nearly a century ago, we have in our minds Colonel Newcome as really as we have Charles Lamb and Coleridge and De Quincey. We are absorbed, as we read, in the evolution of the characters of perhaps only half a dozen people; and yet all the world, all great, roaring, struggling London, is in the story, and Clive, and Philip, and Ethel, and Becky Sharpe, and Captain Costigan are a part of life. It is the flowery month of May; the scent of the hawthorn is in the air, and the tender flush of the new spring suffuses the Park, where the tide of fashion and pleasure and idleness surges up and down-the sauntering throng, the splendid equipages, the endless cavalcade in Rotten Row, in which Clive descries afar off the white plume of his ladylove dancing on the waves of an unattainable society; the club windows are all occupied; Parliament is in session, with its nightly echoes of imperial politics; the thronged streets roar with life from morn till nearly morn again; the drawing-rooms hum and sparkle in the crush of a London season; as you walk the midnight pavement, through the swinging doors of the cider-cellars comes the burst of bacchanalian song. Here is the world of the press and of letters; here are institutions, an army, a navy, commerce, glimpses of great ships going to and fro on distant seas, of India, of Australia. This one book is an epitome of English life, almost of the empire itself. We are conscious of all this, so much breadth and atmosphere has the artist given his little history of half a dozen people in this struggling world.
But this background of a great city, of an empire, is not essential to the breadth of treatment upon which we insist in fiction, to broad characterization, to the play of imagination about common things which transfigures them into the immortal beauty of artistic creations. What a simple idyl in itself is Goethe’s “Hermann and Dorothea”! It is the creation of a few master-touches, using only common material. Yet it has in it the breadth of life itself, the depth and passion of all our human struggle in the world-a little story with a vast horizon.
It is constantly said that the conditions in America are unfavorable to the higher fiction; that our society is unformed, without centre, without the definition of classes, which give the light and shade that Heine speaks of in “Don Quixote”; that it lacks types and customs that can be widely recognized and accepted as national and characteristic; that we have no past; that we want both romantic and historic background; that we are in a shifting, flowing, forming period which fiction cannot seize on; that we are in diversity and confusion that baffle artistic treatment; in short, that American life is too vast, varied, and crude for the purpose of the novelist.
These excuses might be accepted as fully accounting for our failure–or shall we say our delay?–if it were not for two or three of our literary performances. It is true that no novel has been written, and we dare say no novel will be written, that is, or will be, an epitome of the manifold diversities of American life, unless it be in the form of one of Walt Whitman’s catalogues. But we are not without peculiar types; not without characters, not without incidents, stories, heroisms, inequalities; not without the charms of nature in infinite variety; and human nature is the same here that it is in Spain, France, and England. Out of these materials Cooper wrote romances, narratives stamped with the distinct characteristics of American life and scenery, that were and are eagerly read by all civilized peoples, and which secured the universal verdict which only breadth of treatment commands. Out of these materials, also, Hawthorne, child-endowed with a creative imagination, wove those tragedies of interior life, those novels of our provincial New England, which rank among the great masterpieces of the novelist’s art. The master artist can idealize even our crude material, and make it serve. These exceptions to a rule do not go to prove the general assertion of a poverty of material for fiction here; the simple truth probably is that, for reasons incident to the development of a new region of the earth, creative genius has been turned in other directions than that of fictitious literature. Nor do I think that we need to take shelter behind the wellworn and convenient observation, the truth of which stands in much doubt, that literature is the final flower of a nation’s civilization.
However, this is somewhat a digression. We are speaking of the tendency of recent fiction, very much the same everywhere that novels are written, which we have imperfectly sketched. It is probably of no more use to protest against it than it is to protest against the vulgar realism in pictorial art, which holds ugliness and beauty in equal esteem; or against aestheticism gone to seed in languid affectations; or against the enthusiasm of a social life which wreaks its religion on the color of a vestment, or sighs out its divine soul over an ancient pewter mug. Most of our fiction, in its extreme analysis, introspection and self-consciousness, in its devotion to details, in its disregard of the ideal, in its selection as well as in its treatment of nature, is simply of a piece with a good deal else that passes for genuine art. Much of it is admirable in workmanship, and exhibits a cleverness in details and a subtlety in the observation of traits which many great novels lack. But I should be sorry to think that the historian will judge our social life by it, and I doubt not that most of us are ready for a more ideal, that is to say, a more artistic, view of our performances in this bright and pathetic world.