Story type: Essay
The world has expanded faster in the last thirty years than in any previous age since “the spacious days of great Elizabeth.” And with its expansion, of course, our ideas have widened. I believe Europe is now in the midst of just such an outburst of thought and invention as that which followed the discovery of America, and of the new route to India by the Cape of Good Hope. But I don’t want to insist too strongly upon that point, because I know a great many of my contemporaries are deeply hurt by the base and spiteful suggestion that they and their fellows are really quite as good as any fish that ever came out of the sea before them. I only desire now to call attention for a moment to one curious result entailed by this widening of the world upon our literary productivity–a result which, though obvious enough when one comes to look at it, seems to me hitherto to have strangely escaped deliberate notice.
In one word, the point of which I speak is the comparative cosmopolitanisation of letters, and especially the introduction into literary art of the phenomena due to the Clash of Races.
This Clash itself is the one picturesque and novel feature of our otherwise somewhat prosaic and machine-made epoch; and, therefore, it has been eagerly seized upon, with one accord, by all the chief purveyors of recent literature, and especially of fiction. They have espied in it, with technical instinct, the best chance for obtaining that fresh interest which is essential to the success of a work of art. We were all getting somewhat tired, it must be confessed, of the old places and the old themes. The insipid loves of Anthony Trollope’s blameless young people were beginning to pall upon us. The jaded palate of the Anglo-Celtic race pined for something hot, with a touch of fresh spice in it. It demanded curried fowl and Jamaica peppers. Hence, on the one hand, the sudden vogue of the novelists of the younger countries–Tolstoi and Tourgenieff, Ibsen and Bjornson, Mary Wilkins and Howells–who transplanted us at once into fresh scenes, new people: hence, on the other hand, the tendency on the part of our own latest writers–the Stevensons, the Hall Caines, the Marion Crawfords, the Rider Haggards–to go far afield among the lower races or the later civilisations for the themes of their romances.
Alas, alas, I see breakers before me! Must I pause for a moment in the flowing current of a paragraph to explain, as in an aside, that I include Marion Crawford of set purpose among “our own” late writers, while I count Mary Wilkins and Howells as Transatlantic aliens? Experience teaches me that I must; else shall I have that annoying animalcule, the microscopic critic, coming down upon me in print with his petty objection that “Mr. Crawford is an American.” Go to, oh, blind one! And Whistler also, I suppose, and Sargent, and, perhaps, Ashmead Bartlett! What! have you read “Sarracinesca” and not learnt that its author is European to the core? ‘Twas for such as you that the Irishman invented his brilliant retort: “And if I was born in a stable would I be a horse?”
Not merely, however, do our younger writers go into strange and novel places for the scenes of their stories; the important point to notice in the present connection is that, consciously or unconsciously to themselves, they have perceived the mighty influence of this Clash of Races, and have chosen the relations of the civilised people with their savage allies, or enemies, or subjects, as the chief theme of their handicraft. ‘Tis a momentous theme, for it encloses in itself half the problems of the future. The old battles are now well-nigh fought out; but new ones are looming ahead for us. The cosmopolitanisation of the world is introducing into our midst strange elements of discord. A conglomerate of unwelded ethnical elements usurps the stage of history. America and South Africa have already their negro question; California and Australia have already their Chinese question; Russia is fast getting her Asiatic, her Mahommedan question. Even France, the most narrowly European in interest of European countries, has yet her Algeria, her Tunis, her Tonquin. Spain has Cuba and the Philippines. Holland has Java. Germany is burdening herself with the unborn troubles of a Hinterland. And as for England, she staggers on still under the increasing load of India, Hong Kong, Singapore, South Africa, the West Indies, Fiji, New Guinea, North Borneo–all of them rife with endless race-questions, all pregnant with difficulties.
Who can be surprised that amid this seething turmoil of colours, instincts, creeds, and languages, art should have fastened upon the race-problems as her great theme for the moment? And she has fastened upon them everywhere. France herself has not been able to avoid the contagion. Pierre Loti is the most typical French representative of this vagabond spirit; and the question of the peoples naturally envisages itself to his mind in true Gallic fashion in the “Mariage de Loti” and in “Madame Chrysantheme.” He sees it through a halo of vague sexual sentimentalism. In England, it was Rider Haggard from the Cape who first set the mode visibly; and nothing is more noteworthy in all his work than the fact that the interest mainly centres in the picturesque juxtaposition and contrast of civilisation and savagery. Once the cue was given, what more natural than that young Rudyard Kipling, fresh home from India, brimming over with genius and with knowledge of two concurrent streams of life that flow on side by side yet never mingle, should take up his parable in due course, and storm us all by assault with his light field artillery? Then Robert Louis Stevenson, born a wandering Scot, with roving Scandinavian and fiery Celtic blood in his veins, must needs settle down, like a Viking that he is, in far Samoa, there to charm and thrill us by turns with the romance of Polynesia. The example was catching. Almost without knowing it, other writers have turned for subjects to similar fields. “Dr. Isaacs,” “Paul Patoff,” “By Proxy,” were upon us. Even Hall Caine himself, in some ways a most insular type of genius, was forced in “The Scapegoat” to carry us off from Cumberland and Man to Morocco. Sir Edwin Arnold inflicts upon us the tragedies of Japan. I have been watching this tendency long myself with the interested eye of a dealer engaged in the trade, and therefore anxious to keep pace with every changing breath of popular favour: and I notice a constant increase from year to year in the number of short stories in magazines and newspapers dealing with the romance of the inferior races. I notice, also, that such stories are increasingly successful with the public. This shows that, whether the public knows it or not itself, the question of race is interesting it more and more. It is gradually growing to understand the magnitude of the change that has come over civilisation by the inclusion of Asia, Africa, and Australasia within its circle. Even the Queen is learning Hindustani.
There is a famous passage in Green’s “Short History of the English People” which describes in part that strange outburst of national expansion under Elizabeth, when Raleigh, Drake, and Frobisher scoured the distant seas, and when at home “England became a nest of singing birds,” with Shakespeare, Spenser, Fletcher, and Marlow. “The old sober notions of thrift,” says the picturesque historian, “melted before the strange revolutions of fortune wrought by the New World. Gallants gambled away a fortune at a sitting, and sailed off to make a fresh one in the Indies.” (Read rather to-day at Kimberley, Johannesburg, Vancouver.) “Visions of galleons loaded to the brim with pearls and diamonds and ingots of silver, dreams of El Dorados where all was of gold, threw a haze of prodigality and profusion over the imagination of the meanest seaman. The wonders, too, of the New World kindled a burst of extravagant fancy in the Old. The strange medley of past and present which distinguishes its masques and feastings only reflected the medley of men’s thoughts…. A ‘wild man’ from the Indies chanted the Queen’s praises at Kenilworth, and Echo answered him. Elizabeth turned from the greetings of sibyls and giants to deliver the enchanted lady from her tyrant, ‘Sans Pitie.’ Shepherdesses welcomed her with carols of the spring, while Ceres and Bacchus poured their corn and grapes at her feet.” Oh, gilded youth of the Gaiety, mutato nomine de te Fabula narratur. Yours, yours is this glory!
For our own age, too, is a second Elizabethan. It blossoms out daily into such flowers of fancy as never bloomed before, save then, on British soil. When men tell you nowadays we have “no great writers left,” believe not the silly parrot cry. Nay, rather, laugh it down for them. We move in the midst of one of the mightiest epochs earth has ever seen, an epoch which will live in history hereafter side by side with the Athens of Pericles, the Rome of Augustus, the Florence of Lorenzo, the England of Elizabeth. Don’t throw away your birthright by ignoring the fact. Live up to your privileges. Gaze around you and know. Be a conscious partaker in one of the great ages of humanity.