Full Text Archive logoFull Text Archive — Free Classic E-books

Contemporary American Novelists (1900-1920) by Carl Van Doren

Part 2 out of 3

Adobe PDF icon
Download this document as a .pdf
File size: 0.3 MB
What's this? light bulb idea Many people prefer to read off-line or to print out text and read from the real printed page. Others want to carry documents around with them on their mobile phones and read while they are on the move. We have created .pdf files of all out documents to accommodate all these groups of people. We recommend that you download .pdfs onto your mobile phone when it is connected to a WiFi connection for reading off-line.

seems always to have been curious regarding the large operations of
finance, at once stirred on his poetical side by the intoxication of
golden dreams, something as Marlowe was in _The Jew of Malta_, and on
his cynical side struck by the mechanism of craft and courage and
indomitable impulse which the financier employs. Mr. Dreiser writes, it
is true, as an outsider; he simplifies the account of Cowperwood's
adventures after wealth, touching the record here and there with the
naive hand of a peasant--even though a peasant of genius--wondering how
great riches are actually obtained and guessing somewhat awkwardly at
the mystery. And yet these guesses perhaps come nearer to the truth than
they might have come were either the typical financier or Mr. Dreiser
more subtle. You cannot set a poet to catch a financier and be at all
sure of the prize. As it is, this Trilogy of Desire (never completed in
the third part which was to show Cowperwood extending his mighty foray
into London) is as considerable an epic as American business has yet to

Cowperwood's lighter hours are devoted to pursuits almost as polygamous
as those of the leader of some four-footed herd. In this respect the
novels which celebrate him stand close to the more popular _Sister
Carrie_ and _Jennie Gerhardt_, both of them annals of women who fall as
easily as Cowperwood's many mistresses into the hand of the conquering
male. If Mr. Dreiser refuses to withhold his approbation from the
lawless financier, he withholds it even less from the lawless lover. No
moralism overlays the biology of these novels. Sex in them is a
free-flowing, expanding energy, working resistlessly through all human
tissue, knowing in itself neither good nor evil, habitually at war with
the rules and taboos which have been devised by mankind to hold its
amative impulses within convenient bounds. To the cosmic philosopher
what does it matter whether this or that human male mates with this or
that human female, or whether the mating endures beyond the passionate

Viewing such matters thus Mr. Dreiser constantly underestimates the
forces which in civil society actually do restrain the expansive moods
of sex. At least he chooses to represent love almost always in its
vagrant hours. For this his favorite situation is in large part
responsible: that of a strong man, no longer generously young, loving
downward to some plastic, ignorant girl dazzled by his splendor and
immediately compliant to his advances. Mr. Dreiser is obsessed by the
spectacle of middle age renewing itself at the fires of youth--an
obsession which has its sentimental no less than its realistic traits.
What he most conspicuously leaves out of account is the will and
personality of women, whom he sees, or at least represents, with hardly
any exceptions as mere fools of love, mere wax to the wooer, who have no
separate identities till some lover shapes them. To something like this
simplicity the role of women in love is reduced by those Boccaccian
fabulists who adorn the village taproom and the corner grocery.

Mr. Dreiser is reported to consider _The 'Genius'_, a massive, muddy,
powerful narrative, his greatest novel, though as a matter of fact it
cannot be compared with _Sister Carrie_ for insight or accuracy or
charm. His partiality may perhaps be ascribed to his strong inclination
toward the life of art, through which his 'Genius' moves, half hero and
half picaro. Witla remains mediocre enough in all but his sexual
unscrupulousness, but he is impelled by a driving force more or less
like those forces which impel Cowperwood. The will to wealth, the will
to love, the will to art--Mr. Dreiser conceives them all as blind
energies with no goal except self-realization. So conceiving them he
tends to see them as less conditioned than they ordinarily are in their
earthly progress by the resistance of statute and habit. Particularly is
this true of his representation of the careers of artists. Carrie
becomes a noted actress in a few short weeks; Witla almost as rapidly
becomes a noted illustrator; other minor characters here and there in
the novels are said to have prodigious power without exhibiting it.
Hardly ever does there appear any delicate, convincing analysis of the
mysterious behavior of true genius. Mr. Dreiser's artists are hardly
persons at all; they are creatures driven, and the wonder lies primarily
in the impelling energy. The cosmic philosopher in him sees the
beginning and the end of the artistic process better than the novelist
in him sees its methods. And the peasant in him, though it knows the
world of art as vivid and beautiful and though it has investigated that
world at first hand, still leads him to report it in terms often quaint,
melodramatic, invincibly rural. Witness the hundreds of times he calls
things "artistic."

Two of his latest books indicate the range of his gifts and his
excellences. In _Hey Rub-A-Dub-Dub_, which he calls A Book of the
Mystery and Wonder and Terror of Life, he undertook to expound his
general philosophy and produced the most negligible of all his works. He
has no faculty for sustained argument. Like Byron, as soon as he begins
to reason he is less than half himself. In _Twelve Men_, on the other
hand, he displays the qualities by virtue of which he attracts and
deserves a serious attention. Rarely generalizing, he portrays a dozen
actual persons he has known, all his honesty brought to the task of
making his account fit the reality exactly, and all his large tolerance
exercised to present the truth without malice or excuses. Here lies the
field of his finest victories, here and in those adjacent tracts of
other books which are nearest this simple method: his representation of
old Gerhardt and of Aaron Berchansky in _The Hand of the Potter_;
numerous sketches of character in that broad pageant _A Hoosier
Holiday_; the tenderly conceived record of Caroline Meeber, wispy and
witless as she often is; the masterly study of Hurstwood's deterioration
in _Sister Carrie_--this last the peak among all Mr. Dreiser's

Not the incurable awkwardness of his style nor his occasional merciless
verbosity nor his too frequent interposition of crude argument can
destroy the effect which he produces at his best--that of an eminent
spirit brooding over a world which in spite of many condemnations he
deeply, somberly loves. Something peasant-like in his genius may blind
him a little to the finer shades of character and set him astray in his
reports of cultivated society. His conscience about telling the plain
truth may suffer at times from a dogmatic tolerance which refuses to
draw lines between good and evil or between beautiful and ugly or
between wise and foolish. But he gains, on the whole, as much as he
loses by the magnitude of his cosmic philosophizing. These puny souls
over which he broods, with so little dignity in themselves, take on a
dignity from his contemplation of them. Small as they are, he has come
to them from long flights, and has brought back a lifted vision which
enriches his drab narratives. Something spacious, something now lurid
now luminous, surrounds them. From somewhere sound accents of an
authority not sufficiently explained by the mere accuracy of his
versions of life. Though it may indeed be difficult for a thinker of the
widest views to contract himself to the dimensions needed for
naturalistic art, and though he may often fail when he attempts it, when
he does succeed he has the opportunity, which the mere worldling lacks,
of ennobling his art with some of the great light of the poets.




Booth Tarkington is the glass of adolescence and the mold of Indiana.
The hero of his earliest novel, Harkless in _The Gentleman from
Indiana_, drifts through that narrative with a melancholy stride because
he has been seven long years out of college and has not yet set the
prairie on fire. But Mr. Tarkington, at the time of writing distant from
Princeton by about the same number of years and also not yet famous,
could not put up with failure in a hero. So Harkless appears as a mine
of latent splendors. Carlow County idolizes him, evil-doers hate him,
grateful old men worship him, devoted young men shadow his unsuspecting
steps at night in order to protect him from the villains of
Six-Cross-Roads, sweet girls adore him, fortune saves him from dire
adventures, and in the end his fellow-voters choose him to represent
their innumerable virtues in the Congress of their country without his
even dreaming what affectionate game they are at. This from the creator
of Penrod, who at the comical age of twelve so often lays large plans
for proving to the heedless world that he, too, has been a hero all
along! In somewhat happier hours Mr. Tarkington wrote _Monsieur
Beaucaire_, that dainty romantic episode in the life of Prince
Louis-Philippe de Valois, who masquerades as a barber and then as a
gambler at Bath, is misjudged on the evidence of his own disguises,
just escapes catastrophe, and in the end gracefully forgives the
gentlemen and ladies who have been wrong, parting with an exquisite
gesture from Lady Mary Carlisle, the beauty of Bath, who loves him but
who for a few fatal days had doubted. This from the creator of William
Sylvanus Baxter, who at the preposterous age of seventeen imagines
himself another Sydney Carton and after a silent, agonizing,
condescending farewell goes out to the imaginary tumbril!

Just such postures and phantasms of adolescence lie behind all Mr.
Tarkington's more serious plots--and not merely those earlier ones which
he constructed a score of years ago when the mode in fiction was
historical and rococo. Van Revel in _The Two Van Revels_, convinced and
passionate abolitionist, nevertheless becomes as hungry as any
fire-eater of them all the moment Polk moves for war on Mexico, though
to Van Revel the war is an evil madness. In _The Conquest of Canaan_
Louden plays Prince Hal among the lowest his town affords, only to mount
with a rush to the mayoralty when he is ready. _The Guest of Quesnay_
takes a hero who is soiled with every vileness, smashes his head in an
automobile accident, and thus transforms him into that glorious kind of
creature known as a "Greek god"--beautiful and innocent beyond belief or
endurance. _The Turmoil_ is really not much more veracious, with its
ugly duckling, Bibbs Sheridan, who has ideas, loves beauty, and writes
verse, but who after years of futile dreaming becomes a master of
capital almost overnight. Even _The Magnificent Ambersons_, with its
wealth of admirable satire, does not satirize its own conclusion but
rounds out its narrative with a hasty regeneration. And what can a
critic say of such blatant nonsense as arises from the frenzy of
propaganda in _Ramsey Milholland_?

Perhaps it is truer to call Mr. Tarkington's plots sophomoric than to
call them adolescent. Indeed, the mark of the undergraduate almost
covers them, especially of the undergraduate as he fondly imagines
himself in his callow days and as he is foolishly instructed to regard
himself by the more vinous and more hilarious of the old graduates who
annually come back to a college to offer themselves--though this is not
their conscious purpose--as an object lesson in the loud triviality
peculiar and traditional to such hours of reunion. Adolescence, however,
when left to itself, has other and very different hours which Mr.
Tarkington shows almost no signs of comprehending.

The author of _Penrod_, of _Penrod and Sam_, and of _Seventeen_ passes
for an expert in youth; rarely has so persistent a reputation been so
insecurely founded. What all these books primarily recall is the winks
that adults exchange over the heads of children who are minding their
own business, as the adults are not; the winks, moreover, of adults who
have forgotten the inner concerns of adolescence and now observe only
its surface awkwardnesses. Real adolescence, like any other age of man,
has its own passions, its own poetry, its own tragedies and felicities;
the adolescence of Mr. Tarkington's tales is almost nothing but
farce--staged for outsiders. Not one of the characters is an individual;
they are all little monsters--amusing monsters, it is true--dressed up
to display the stock ambitions and the stock resentments and the stock
affectations and the stock perturbations of the heart which attend the
middle teens. The pranks of Penrod Schofield are merely those of Tom
Sawyer repeated in another town, without the touches of poetry or of the
informing imagination lent by Mark Twain. The sighs of "Silly Bill"
Baxter--at first diverting, it is also true--are exorbitantly multiplied
till reality drops out of the semblance. Calf-love does not always
remain a joke merely because there are mature spectators to stand by
nudging one another and roaring at the discomfort which love causes its
least experienced victims. Those knowing asides which accompany these
juvenile records have been mistaken too often for shrewd, even for
profound, analyses of human nature. Actually they are only knowing, as
sophomores are knowing with respect to their juniors by a few years. In
contemporary American fiction Mr. Tarkington is the perennial sophomore.

If he may be said never to have outgrown Purdue and Princeton, so also
may he be said never to have outgrown Indiana. In any larger sense, of
course, he has not needed to. A novelist does not require a universe in
which to find the universe, which lies folded, for the sufficiently
perceptive eye, in any village. Thoreau and Emerson found it in Concord;
Thomas Hardy in Wessex has watched the world move by without himself
moving. But Mr. Tarkington has toward his native state the conscious
attitude of the booster. Smile as he may at the too emphatic patriotism
of this or that of her sons, he himself nevertheless expands under a
similar stimulus. The impulse of Harkless to clasp all Carlow County to
his broad breast obviously sprang from a mood which Mr. Tarkington
himself had felt. And that impulse of that first novel has been
repeated again and again in the later characters. _In the Arena_, fruit
of Mr. Tarkington's term in the Indiana legislature, is a study in
complacency. Setting out to take the world of politics as he finds it,
he comes perilously near to ending on the note of approval for it as it
stands--as good, on the whole, as any possible world. His satire, at
least, is on the side of the established order. A certain soundness and
rightness of feeling, a natural hearty democratic instinct, which
appears in the novels, must not be allowed to mislead the analyst of his
art. More than once, to his credit, he satirically recurs to the
spectacle of those young Indianians who come back from their travels
with a secret condescension, as did George Amberson Minafer: "His
politeness was of a kind which democratic people found hard to bear. In
a word, M. le Duc had returned from the gay life of the capital to show
himself for a week among the loyal peasants belonging to the old
chateau, and their quaint habits and costumes afforded him a mild
amusement." Such passages, however, may be matched with irritating
dozens in which Mr. Tarkington swallows Indiana whole.

That may have been an easier task than to perform a similar feat with
the state to the east of Indiana, which has always been a sort of
halfway house between East and West; or with that to the north, with its
many alien mixtures; or with that to the south, the picturesque,
diversified colony of Virginia; or with that to the west, which, thanks
in large part to Chicago, is packed with savagery and genius. Indiana,
at any rate till very recently, has had an indigenous population, not
too daring or nomadic; it has been both prosperous and folksy, the apt
home of pastorals, the agreeable habitat of a sentimental folk-poet
like Riley, the natural begetter of a canny fabulist like George Ade. It
has a tradition of realism in fiction, but that tradition descends from
_The Hoosier School-Master_ and it includes a full confidence in the
folk and in the rural virtues--very different from that of E.W. Howe or
Hamlin Garland or Edgar Lee Masters in states a little further outside
the warm, cozy circle of the Hoosiers. Indiana has a tradition of
romance, too. Did not Indianapolis publish _When Knighthood Was in
Flower_ and _Alice of Old Vincennes_? They are of the same vintage as
_Monsieur Beaucaire_. And both romance and realism in Indiana have
traditionally worn the same smooth surfaces, the same simple--not to say
silly--faith in things-at-large: God's in His Indiana; all's right with
the world. George Ade, being a satirist of genius, has stood out of all
this; Theodore Dreiser, Indianian by birth but hopelessly a rebel, has
stood out against it; but Booth Tarkington, trying to be Hoosier of
Hoosiers, has given himself up to the romantic and sentimental elements
of the Indiana literary tradition.

To practise an art which is genuinely characteristic of some section of
the folk anywhere is to do what may be important and is sure to be
interesting. But Mr. Tarkington no more displays the naivete of a true
folk-novelist than he displays the serene vision that can lift a
novelist above the accidents of his particular time and place. This
Indianian constantly appears, by his allusions, to be a citizen of the
world. He knows Europe; he knows New York. Again and again, particularly
in the superb opening chapters of _The Magnificent Ambersons_, he rises
above the local prejudices of his special parish and observes with a
finely critical eye. But whenever he comes to a crisis in the building
of a plot or in the truthful representation of a character he sags down
to the level of Indiana sentimentality. George Minafer departs from the
Hoosier average by being a snob; time--and Mr. Tarkington's plot--drags
the cub back to normality. Bibbs Sheridan departs from the Hoosier
average by being a poet; time--and Mr. Tarkington's plot--drags the cub
back to normality. Both processes are the same. Perhaps Mr. Tarkington
would not deliberately say that snobbery and poetry are equivalent
offenses, but he does not particularly distinguish. Sympathize as he may
with these two aberrant youths, he knows no other solution than in the
end to reduce them to the ranks. He accepts, that is, the casual Hoosier
valuation, not with pity because so many of the creative hopes of youth
come to naught or with regret that the flock in the end so frequently
prevails over individual talent, but with a sort of exultant hurrah at
seeing all the wandering sheep brought back in the last chapter and
tucked safely away in the good old Hoosier fold.

Viewed critically this attitude of Mr. Tarkington's is of course not
even a compliment to Indiana, any more than it is a compliment to women
to take always the high chivalrous tone toward them, as if they were
flawless creatures; any more than it is a compliment to the poor to
assume that they are all virtuous or to the rich to assume that they are
all malefactors of a tyrannical disposition. If Indiana plays microcosm
to Mr. Tarkington's art, he owes it to his state to find more there than
he has found--or has cared to set down; he owes it to his state now and
then to quarrel with the dominant majority, for majorities occasionally
go wrong, as well as men; he owes it to his state to give up his method
of starting his narrative himself and then calling in popular
sentimentalism to advise him how to bring it to an end.

According to all the codes of the more serious kinds of fiction, the
unwillingness--or the inability--to conduct a plot to its legitimate
ending implies some weakness in the artistic character; and this
weakness has been Mr. Tarkington's principal defect. Nor does it in any
way appear that he excuses himself by citing the immemorial license of
the romancer. Mr. Tarkington apparently believes in his own conclusions.
Now this causes the more regret for the reason that he has what is next
best to character in a novelist--that is, knack. He has the knack of
romance when he wants to employ it: a light, allusive manner; a
sufficient acquaintance with certain charming historical epochs and the
"properties" thereto pertaining--frills, ruffs, rapiers, insinuation; a
considerable expertness in the ways of the "world"; gay colors, swift
moods, the note of tender elegy. He has also the knack of satire, which
he employs more frequently than romance. With what a rapid, joyous,
accurate eye he has surveyed the processes of culture in "the Midland
town"! How quickly he catches the first gesture of affectation and how
deftly he sets it forth, entertained and entertaining! From the
chuckling exordium of _The Magnificent Ambersons_ it is but a step to
_The Age of Innocence_ and _Main Street_. Little reflective as he has
allowed himself to be, he has by shrewd observation alone succeeded in
writing not a few chapters which have texture, substance, "thickness."
He has movement, he has energy, he has invention, he has good temper, he
has the leisure to write as well as he can if he wishes to. And, unlike
those dozens of living American writers who once each wrote one good
book and then lapsed into dull oblivion or duller repetition, he has
traveled a long way from the methods of his greener days.

Why then does he continue to trifle with his thread-bare adolescents, as
if he were afraid to write candidly about his coevals? Why does he drift
with the sentimental tide and make propaganda for provincial
complacency? He must know better. He can do better.

_February 1921._

POSTSCRIPT.--He has done better. Almost as if to prove a somewhat somber
critic in the wrong and to show that newer novelists have no monopoly of
the new style of seriousness, Mr. Tarkington has in _Alice Adams_ held
himself veracious to the end and has produced a genuinely significant
book. Alice is, indeed, less strictly a tragic figure than she appears
to be. Desire, in any of the deeper senses, she shows no signs of
feeling; what she loves in Russell is but incidentally himself and
actually his assured position and his assured prosperity. So considered,
her machinations to enchant and hold him have a comic aspect; one touch
more of exaggeration and she would pass over to join those sorry ladies
of the world of farce who take a larger visible hand in wooing than
human customs happen to approve. But Mr. Tarkington withholds that one
touch more of exaggeration. He understands that Alice's instinct to win
a husband is an instinct as powerful as any that she has and is all that
she has been taught by her society to have. In his handling she becomes
important; her struggle, without the aid of guardian dowager or
beguiling dot, becomes increasingly pathetic as the narrative advances;
and her eventual failure, though signalized merely by her resolution to
desert the inhospitable circles of privilege for the wider universe of
work, carries with it the sting of tragedy.

Mr. Tarkington might have gone further than he has behind the bourgeois
assumptions which his story takes for granted, but he has probably been
wiser not to. Sticking to familiar territory, he writes with the
confident touch of a man unconfused by speculation. His style is still
swift, still easy, still flexible, still accurate in its conformity to
the vernacular. He attempts no sentimental detours and permits himself
no popular superfluities. He has retained all his tried qualities of
observation and dexterity while admitting to his work the element of a
sterner conscience than it has heretofore betrayed. With the honesty of
his conclusion goes the mingling of mirth and sadness in _Alice Adams_
as another trait of its superiority. The manners of the young which
have always seemed so amusing to Mr. Tarkington and which he has kept on
watching and laughing at as his principal material, now practically for
the first time have evoked from him a considerate sense of the pathos of
youth. It strengthens the pathos of Alice's fate that the comedy holds
out so well; it enlarges the comedy of it that its pathos is so
essential to the action. Even the most comic things have their tears.

_August 1921._


At the outset of the twentieth century O. Henry, in a mood of reaction
from current snobbism, discovered what he called the Four Million; and
during the same years, in a mood not wholly different, Edith Wharton
rediscovered what she would never have called the Four Hundred. Or
rather she made known to the considerable public which peeps at
fashionable New York through the obliging windows of fiction that that
world was not so simple in its magnificence as the inquisitive, but
uninstructed, had been led to believe. Behind the splendors reputed to
characterize the great, she testified on almost every page of her books,
lay certain arcana which if much duller were also much more desirable.
Those splendors were merely as noisy brass to the finer metal of the
authentic inner circles. These were very small, and they suggested an
American aristocracy rather less than they suggested the aborigines of
their native continent.

Ralph Marvell in _The Custom of the Country_ described Washington
Square as the "Reservation," and prophesied that "before long its
inhabitants would be exhibited at ethnological shows, pathetically
engaged in the exercise of their primitive industries." Mrs. Wharton has
exhibited them in the exercise of industries not precisely primitive,
and yet aboriginal enough, very largely concerned in turning shapely
shoulders to the hosts of Americans anxious and determined to invade
their ancient reservations. As the success of the women in keeping new
aspirants out of drawing-room and country house has always been greater
than the success of the men in keeping them out of Wall Street, the
aboriginal aristocracy in Mrs. Wharton's novels transacts its affairs
for the most part in drawing-rooms and country houses. There, however,
to judge by _The House of Mirth_, _The Custom of the Country_, and _The
Age of Innocence_, the life of the inhabitants, far from being a
continuous revel as represented by the popular novelists, is marked by
nothing so much as an uncompromising decorum.

Take the case of Lily Bart in _The House of Mirth_. She goes to pieces
on the rocks of that decorum, though she has every advantage of birth
except a fortune, and knows the rules of the game perfectly. But she
cannot follow them with the impeccable equilibrium which is needful; she
has the Aristotelian hero's fatal defect of a single weakness. In that
golden game not to go forward is to fall behind. Lily Bart hesitates,
oscillates, and is lost. Having left her appointed course, she finds on
trying to return to her former society that it is little less
impermeable to her than she has seen rank outsiders find it. Then there
is Undine Spragg in _The Custom of the Country_, who, marrying and
divorcing with the happy insensibility of the animals that mate for a
season only, undertakes to force her brilliant, barren beauty into the
centers of the elect. Such beauty as hers can purchase much, thanks to
the desires of men, and Undine, thanks to her own blindness as regards
all delicate disapproval, comes within sight of her goal. But in the end
she fails. The custom of her country--Apex City and the easy-going
West--is not the decorum of New York reinforced by European examples.
Newland Archer and Ellen Olenska in _The Age of Innocence_ neither lose
nor seek an established position within the social mandarinate of
Manhattan as constituted in the seventies of the last century. They
belong there and there they remain. But at what sacrifices of personal
happiness and spontaneous action! They walk through their little drama
with the unadventurous stride of puppets; they observe dozens of taboos
with a respect allied to terror. It is true that they appear to have
been the victims of the provincial "innocence" of their generation, but
the newer generation in New York is not entirely acquitted of a certain
complicity in the formalism of its past.

From the first Mrs. Wharton's power has lain in the ability to reproduce
in fiction the circumstances of a compact community in a way that
illustrates the various oppressions which such communities put upon
individual vagaries, whether viewed as sin, or ignorance, or folly, or
merely as social impossibility. She has, of course, studied other
communities than New York: the priest-ridden Italy of the eighteenth
century in _The Valley of Decision_; modern France in _Madame de
Treymes_ and _The Reef_; provincial New England in _The Fruit of the
Tree_. What characterizes the New York novels characterizes these others
as well: a sense of human beings living in such intimate solidarity that
no one of them may vary from the customary path without in some fashion
breaking the pattern and inviting some sort of disaster.

Novels written out of this conception of existence fall ordinarily into
partizanship, either on the side of the individual who leaves his herd
or on the side of the herd which runs him down or shuts him out for
good. Mrs. Wharton has always been singularly unpartizan, as if she
recognized it as no duty of hers to do more for the herd or its members
than to play over the spectacle of their clashes the long, cold light of
her magnificent irony. At the same time, however, her attitude toward
New York society, her most frequent theme, has slightly changed. _The
House of Mirth_, published in 1905, glows with certain of the colors of
the grand style. These appear hardly at all in _The Age of Innocence_,
published in 1920, as if Mrs. Wharton's feeling for ceremony had
diminished, as if the grand style no longer found her so susceptible as
formerly. Possibly her advance in satire may arise from nothing more
significant than her retreat into the past for a subject. Nevertheless,
one step forward could make her an invaluable satirist of the current

Among Mrs. Wharton's novels are two--_Ethan Frome_ and _Summer_--which
unfold the tragedy of circumstances apparently as different as possible
from those chronicled in the New York novels. Her fashionable New York
and her rural New England, however, have something in common. In the
desolate communities which witness the agonies of Ethan Frome and
Charity Royall not only is there a stubborn village decorum but there
are also the bitter compulsions of a helpless poverty which binds feet
and wings as the most ruthless decorum cannot bind them, and which
dulls all the hues of life to an unendurable dinginess. As a member of
the class which spends prosperous vacations on the old soil of the
Puritans Mrs. Wharton has surveyed the cramped lives of the native
remnant with a pity springing from her knowledge of all the freedom and
beauty and pleasure which they miss. She consequently brings into her
narrative an outlook not to be found in any of the novelists who write
of rural New England out of the erudition which comes of more intimate
acquaintanceship. Without filing down her characters into types she
contrives to lift them into universal figures of aspiration or

In _Ethan Frome_, losing from her clear voice for a moment the note of
satire, she reaches her highest point of tragic passion. In the bleak
life of Ethan Frome on his bleak hillside there blooms an exquisite love
which during a few hours of rapture promises to transform his fate; but
poverty clutches him, drives him to attempt suicide with the woman he
loves, and then condemns him to one of the most appalling expiations in
fiction--to a slavery in comparison with which his former life was
almost freedom. Not since Hawthorne has a novelist built on the New
England soil a tragedy of such elevation of mood as this. Freed from the
bondage of local color, that myopic muse, Mrs. Wharton here handles her
material not so much like a quarryman finding curious stones and calling
out about them as like a sculptor setting up his finished work on a
commanding hill.

It has regularly been by her novels that Mrs. Wharton has attracted the
most attention, and yet her short stories are of a quite comparable
excellence. About fifty of them altogether, they show her swift,
ironical intelligence flashing its light into numerous corners of human
life not large enough to warrant prolonged reports. She can go as far
afield as to the ascetic ecstasies and agonies of medieval religion, in
_The Hermit and the Wild Woman_; or as to the horrible revenge of Duke
Ercole of Vicenza, in _The Duchess at Prayer_; or as to the murder and
witchcraft of seventeenth-century Brittany, in _Kerfol_. _Kerfol_,
_Afterward_, and _The Lady's Maid's Bell_ are as good ghost stories as
any written in many years. _Bunner Sisters_, an observant, tender
narrative, concerns itself with the declining fortunes of two
shopkeepers of Stuyvesant Square in New York's age of innocence.

For the most part, however, the locality and temper of Mrs. Wharton's
briefer stories are not so remote as these from the center of her
particular world, wherein subtle and sophisticated people stray in the
crucial mazes of art or learning or love. Her artists and scholars are
likely to be shown at some moment in which a passionate ideal is in
conflict with a lower instinct toward profit or reputation, as when in
_The Descent of Man_ an eminent scientist turns his feet ruinously into
the wide green descent to "popular" science, or as when in _The Verdict_
a fashionable painter of talent encounters the work of an obscure genius
and gives up his own career in the knowledge that at best he can never
do but third-rate work. Some such stress of conflict marks almost all
Mrs. Wharton's stories of love, which make up the overwhelming majority
of her work. Love with her in but few cases runs the smooth course
coincident with flawless matrimony. It cuts violently across the
boundaries drawn by marriages of convenience, and it suffers tragic
changes in the objects of its desire.

What opportunity has a free, wilful passion in the tight world Mrs.
Wharton prefers to represent? Either its behavior must be furtive and
hypocritical or else it must incur social disaster. Here again Mrs.
Wharton will not be partizan. If in one story--such as _The Long
Run_--she seems to imply that there is no ignominy like that of failing
love when it comes, yet in another--such as _Souls Belated_--she sets
forth the costs and the entanglements that ensue when individuals take
love into their own hands and defy society. Not love for itself but love
as the most frequent and most personal of all the passions which bring
the community into clashes with its members--this is the subject of Mrs.
Wharton's curiosity and study. Her only positive conclusions about it,
as reflected in her stories, seem to be that love cuts deepest in the
deepest natures and yet that no one is quite so shallow as to love and
recover from it without a scar. Divorce, according to her
representations, can never be quite complete; one of her most amusing
stories, _The Other Two_, recounts how the third husband of a woman
whose first two husbands are still living gradually resolves her into
her true constituency and finds nothing there but what one husband after
another has made of her.

In stories like this Mrs. Wharton occasionally leaves the restraint of
her ordinary manner to wear the keener colors of the satirist. _Xingu_,
for instance, with its famous opening sentence--"Mrs. Ballinger is one
of the ladies who pursue Culture in bands, as though it were dangerous
to meet alone"--has the flash and glitter, and the agreeable
artificiality, of polite comedy. Undine Spragg and the many futile women
whom Mrs. Wharton enjoys ridiculing more than she gives evidence of
enjoying anything else belong nearly as much to the menagerie of the
satirist as to the novelist's gallery. It is only in these moments of
satire that Mrs. Wharton reveals much about her disposition: her
impatience with stupidity and affectation and muddy confusion of mind
and purpose; her dislike of dinginess; her toleration of arrogance when
it is high-bred. Such qualities do not help her, for all her spare,
clean movement, to achieve the march or rush of narrative; such
qualities, for all her satiric pungency, do not bring her into sympathy
with the sturdy or burly or homely, or with the broader aspects of
comedy. Lucidity, detachment, irony--these never desert her (though she
wrote with the hysterical pen that hundreds used during the war). So
great is her self-possession that she holds criticism at arm's length,
somewhat as her chosen circles hold the barbarians. If she had a little
less of this pride of dignity she might perhaps avoid her tendency to
assign to decorum a larger power than it actually exercises, even in the
societies about which she writes. Decorum, after all, is binding chiefly
upon those who accept it without question but not upon passionate or
logical rebels, who are always shattering it with some touch of violence
or neglect; neither does it bind those who stand too securely to be
shaken. For this reason the coils of circumstance and the pitfalls of
inevitability with which Mrs. Wharton besets the careers of her
characters are in part an illusion deftly employed for the sake of
artistic effect. She multiplies them as romancers multiply adventures.

The illusion of reality in her work, however, almost never fails her, so
alertly is her mind on the lookout to avoid vulgar or shoddy romantic
elements. Compared to Henry James, her principal master in fiction, whom
she resembles in respect to subjects and attitude, she lacks exuberance
and richness of texture, but she has more intelligence than he. Compared
to Jane Austen, the novelist among Anglo-Saxon women whom Mrs. Wharton
most resembles, particularly as regards satire and decorum, she is the
more impassioned of the two. It may seem at first thought a little
strange to compare the vivid novels of the author of _The House of
Mirth_ with the mouse-colored narratives of the author of _Pride and
Prejudice_, for the twentieth century has added to all fiction many
overtones not heard in the eighteenth. But of no other woman writer
since Jane Austen can it be said quite so truthfully as of Mrs. Wharton
that her natural, instinctive habitat is a true tower of irony.


Although most novelists with any historical or scholarly hankerings are
satisfied to invent here a scene and there a plot and elsewhere an
authority, James Branch Cabell has invented a whole province for his
imagination to dwell in. He calls it Poictesme and sets it on the map
of medieval Europe, but it has no more unity of time and place than has
the multitudinous land of _The Faerie Queene_. Around the reigns of Dom
Manuel, Count and Redeemer of Poictesme, epic hero of _Figures of
Earth_, father of the heroine in _The Soul of Melicent_ (later renamed
_Domnei_), father of that Dorothy la Desiree whom Jurgen loved (with
some other women), father also of that Count Emmerich who succeeded
Manuel as ruler at Bellegarde and Storisende--around the reigns of
Manuel and Emmerich the various sagas of Mr. Cabell principally revolve.
Scandinavia, however, conveniently impinges upon their province, with
Constantinople and Barbary, Massilia, Aquitaine, Navarre, Portugal,
Rome, England, Paris, Alexandria, Arcadia, Olympus, Asgard, and the
Jerusalems Old and New. As many ages of history likewise converge upon
Poictesme in its ostensible thirteenth or fourteenth century, from the
most mythological times only a little this side of Creation to the most
contemporary America of Felix Kennaston who lives at comfortable
Lichfield with two motors and with money in four banks but in his mind
habitually bridges the gap by imagined excursions into Poictesme and the
domains adjacent.

Nothing but remarkable erudition in the antiquities as Cockaigne and
Faery could possibly suffice for such adventures as Mr. Cabell's, and he
has very remarkable erudition in all that concerns the regions which
delight him. And where no authorities exist he merrily invents them, as
in the case of his Nicolas of Caen, poet of Normandy, whose tales
_Dizain des Reines_ are said to furnish the source for the ten stories
collected in _Chivalry_, and whose largely lost masterpiece _Le Roman
de Lusignan_ serves as the basis for _Domnei_. One British critic and
rival of Mr. Cabell has lately fretted over the unblushing anachronisms
and confused geography of this parti-colored world. For less dull-witted
scholars these are the very cream of the Cabellian jest.

The cream but not the substance, for Mr. Cabell has a profound creed of
comedy rooted in that romance which is his regular habit. Romance,
indeed, first exercised his imagination, in the early years of the
century when in many minds he was associated with the decorative Howard
Pyle and allowed his pen to move at the languid gait then characteristic
of a dozen inferior romancers. Only gradually did his texture grow
firmer, his tapestry richer; only gradually did his gaiety strengthen
into irony. Although that irony was the progenitor of the comic spirit
which now in his maturity dominates him, it has never shaken off the
romantic elements which originally nourished it. Rather, romance and
irony have grown up in his work side by side. His Poictesme is no less
beautiful for having come to be a country of disillusion; nor has his
increasing sense of the futility of desire robbed him of his old sense
that desire is a glory while it lasts.

He allows John Charteris in _Beyond Life_--for the most part Mr.
Cabell's mouthpiece--to set forth the doctrine that romance is the real
demiurge, "the first and loveliest daughter of human vanity," whereby
mankind is duped--and exalted. "No one on the preferable side of Bedlam
wishes to be reminded of what we are in actuality, even were it
possible, by any disastrous miracle, ever to dispel the mist which
romance has evoked about all human doings." Therefore romance has
created the "dynamic illusions" of chivalry and love and common sense
and religion and art and patriotism and optimism, and therein "the ape
reft of his tail and grown rusty at climbing" has clothed himself so
long that as he beholds himself in the delusive mirrors he has for
centuries held up to nature he believes he is somehow of cosmic
importance. Poor and naked as this aspiring ape must seem to the eye of
reason, asks Mr. Cabell, is there not something magnificent about his
imaginings? Does the course of human life not singularly resemble the
dance of puppets in the hands of a Supreme Romancer? How, then, may any
one declare that romance has become antiquated or can ever cease to be
indispensable to mortal character and mortal interest?

The difference between Mr. Cabell and the popular romancers who in all
ages clutter the scene and for whom he has nothing but amused contempt
is that they are unconscious dupes of the demiurge whereas he, aware of
its ways and its devices, employs it almost as if it were some
hippogriff bridled by him in Elysian pastures and respectfully
entertained in a snug Virginian stable. His attitude toward romance
suggests a cheerful despair: he despairs of ever finding anything truer
than romance and so contents himself with Poictesme and its tributaries.
The favorite themes of romance being relatively few, he has not troubled
greatly to increase them; war and love in the main he finds enough.

Besides these, however, he has always been deeply occupied with one
other theme--the plight of the poet in the world. That sturdy bruiser
Dom Manuel, for instance, is at heart a poet who molds figures out of
clay as his strongest passion, although the world, according to its
custom, conspires against his instinct by interrupting him with love and
war and business, and in the end hustles him away before he has had time
to make anything more lovely or lasting than a reputation as a hero. In
the amazing fantasy _The Cream of the Jest_ Mr. Cabell has embodied the
visions of the romancer Felix Kennaston so substantially that
Kennaston's diurnal walks in Lichfield seem hardly as real as those
nightly ventures which under the guise of Horvendile he makes into the
glowing land he has created. Nor are the two universes separated by any
tight wall which the fancy must leap over: they flow with exquisite
caprice one into another, as indeed they always do in the consciousness
of a poet who, like Kennaston or Mr. Cabell, broods continually over the
problem how best to perform his function: "to write perfectly of
beautiful happenings."

Of all the fine places in the world where beautiful happenings come
together, Mr. Cabell argues, incomparably the richest is in the
consciousness of a poet who is also a scholar. There are to be found the
precious hoarded memories of some thousands of years: high deeds and
burning loves and eloquent words and surpassing tears and laughter.
There, consequently, the romancer may well take his stand, distilling
bright new dreams out of ancient beauty. And if he adds the heady tonic
of an irony springing from a critical intelligence, so much the better.
When Mr. Cabell wishes to represent several different epochs in _The
Certain Hour_ he chooses to tell ten stories of poets--real or
imagined--as the persons in whom, by reason of their superior
susceptibility, the color of their epochs may be most truthfully
discovered; and when he wishes to decant his own wit and wisdom most
genuinely the vessel he normally employs is a poet.

If the poets and warriors who make up the list of Mr. Cabell's heroes
devote their lives almost wholly to love, it is for the reason that no
other emotion interests him so much or seems to him to furnish so many
beautiful happenings about which to write perfectly. Love, like art, is
a species of creation, and the moods which attend it, though illusions,
are miracles none the less. Of the two aspects of love which especially
attract Mr. Cabell he has given the larger share of his attention to the
extravagant worship of women ("domnei") developed out of chivalry--the
worship which began by ascribing to the beloved the qualities of purity
and perfection, of beauty and holiness, and ended by practically
identifying her with the divine. This supernal folly reaches its apogee
in _Domnei_, in the careers of Perion and Melicent who are so uplifted
by ineffable desire that their souls ceaselessly reach out to each other
though obstacles large as continents intervene. For Perion the most
deadly battles are but thornpricks in the quest of Melicent; and such is
Melicent's loyalty during the years of her longing that the possession
of her most white body by Demetrios of Anatolia leaves her soul
immaculate and almost unperturbed. In this tale love is canonized:
throned on alabaster above all the vulgar gods it diffuses among its
worshipers a crystal radiance in which mortal imperfections perish--or
are at least forgotten during certain rapturous hours.

Ordinarily one cynical touch will break such pretty bubbles; but Mr.
Cabell, himself a master of cynical touches and shrewdly anticipant of
them, protects his invention with the competent armor of irony, and now
and then--particularly in the felicitous tenson spoken by Perion and
Demetrios concerning the charms of Melicent--brings mirth and beauty to
an amalgam which bids fair to prove classic metal. A much larger share
of this mirth appears in _Jurgen_, which narrates with phallic candor
the exploits of a middle-aged pawnbroker of Poictesme in pursuit of
immortal desire. Of course he does not find it, for the sufficient
reason that, as Mr. Cabell understands such matters, the ultimate magic
of desire lies in the inaccessibility of the desired; and Jurgen, to
whom all women in his amorous Cockaigne are as accessible as bread and
butter, after his sly interval of rejuvenation comes back in the end to
his wife and his humdrum duty with a definite relief. He may be no more
in love with Dame Lisa than with his right hand, and yet both are
considerably more necessary to his well-being, he discovers, than a
number of more exciting things.

Love in _Jurgen_ inclines toward another aspect of the passion which Mr.
Cabell has studied somewhat less than the chivalrous--the aspect of
gallantry. "I have read," says John Charteris, "that the secret of
gallantry is to accept the pleasures of life leisurely, and its
inconveniences with a shrug; as well as that, among other requisites,
the gallant person will always consider the world with a smile of
toleration, and his own doings with a smile of honest amusement, and
Heaven with a smile which is not distrustful--being thoroughly persuaded
that God is kindlier than the genteel would regard as rational." These
are the accents, set to slightly different rhythms, of a Congreve; and
if there is anything as remarkable about Mr. Cabell as the fact that he
has represented the chivalrous and the gallant attitudes toward love
with nearly equal sympathy, it is the fact that in an era of militant
naturalism and of renascent moralism he has blithely adhered to an
affection for unconcerned worldliness and has airily played Congreve in
the midst of all the clamorous, serious, disquisitive bassoons of the
national orchestra.

In _The Cords of Vanity_ Robert Townsend goes gathering roses and
tasting lips almost as if the second Charles were still the lawful ruler
of his obedient province of Virginia; and in _The Rivet in Grandfather's
Neck_ Rudolph Musgrave, that quaint figure whittled out of chivalry and
dressed up in amiable heroics, is plainly contrasted with the glib rogue
of genius John Charteris, who, elsewhere in Mr. Cabell's books generally
the chorus, here enters the plot and exhibits a sorry gallantry in
action. Poictesme, these novels indicate, is not the only country Mr.
Cabell knows; he knows also how to feel at home, when he cares to, in
the mimic universe of Lichfield and Fairhaven, where gay ribbons
perpetually flutter, and where eyes and hands perpetually invite, and
where love runs a deft, dainty, fickle course in all weathers.

That Felix Kennaston inhabits Lichfield in the flesh and in the spirit
elopes into Poictesme may be taken, after a fashion, as allegory with an
autobiographical foundation: _The Cream of the Jest_ is, on the whole,
the essence of Cabell. The book suggests, moreover, a critical
position--which is, that gallantry and Virginia have so far been
regrettably sacrificed to chivalry and Poictesme in the career of Mr.
Cabell's imagination. Not only the symmetry expected of that career
demands something different; so does its success with the gallantries of
Lichfield. In spite of all Mr. Cabell's accumulation of erudite
allusions the atmosphere of his Poictesme often turns thin and leaves
his characters gasping for vital breath; nor does he entirely restore it
by multiplying symbols as he does in _Jurgen_ and _Figures of Earth_
until the background of his narrative is studded with rich images and
piquant chimeras that perplex more than they illuminate--and sometimes
bore. These chivalric loves beating their heads against the cold moon
are, after all, follies, however supernal; they are as brief as they are
bright; in the end even the greedy Jurgen turns back to honest salt from
too much sugar.

Now in gallantry as Mr. Cabell conceives and represents it there is
always the salt of prudence, of satire, of comedy; and his gifts in this
direction are too great to be neglected. The comic spirit, let it be
remembered, has led Mr. Cabell from the softness and sweetness which in
spots disfigured his earlier romances--such as _The Line of Love and
Chivalry_--before he recently revised them; it has happily kept in hand
the wild wings of his later love stories; now it deserves to have its
way unburdened, at least occasionally. While it almost had its way in
Jurgen, where it behaved like a huge organ bursting into uproarious
laughter, it still had to carry the burden of much learning. It would be
freer of such delectable plunder could it once burst into uproar in the
midst of Virginia. Mr. Cabell has singled out two very dissimilar poets
for particular compliment: Marlowe and Congreve. As regards the still
more particular compliment of imitation, however, he has done Congreve
rather less than justice.


When Willa Cather dedicated her first novel, _O Pioneers!_, to the
memory of Sarah Orne Jewett, she pointed out a link of natural piety
binding her to a literary ancestor now rarely credited with descendants
so robust. The link holds even yet in respect to the clear outlines and
fresh colors and simple devices of Miss Cather's art; in respect to the
body and range of her work it never really held. The thin, fine
gentility which Miss Jewett celebrates is no further away from the rich
vigor of Miss Cather's pioneers than is the kindly sentiment of the
older woman from the native passion of the younger. Miss Jewett wrote of
the shadows of memorable events. Once upon a time, her stories all
remind us, there was an heroic cast to New England. In Miss Jewett's
time only the echoes of those Homeric days made any noise in the
world--at least for her ears and the ears of most of her literary
contemporaries. Unmindful of the roar of industrial New England she
kept to the milder regions of her section and wrote elegies upon the

In Miss Cather's quarter of the country there were still heroes during
the days she has written about, still pioneers. The sod and swamps of
her Nebraska prairies defy the hands of labor almost as obstinately as
did the stones and forests of old New England. Her Americans, like all
the Agamemnons back of Miss Jewett's world, are fresh from Europe,
locked in a mortal conflict with nature. If now and then the older among
them grow faint at remembering Bohemia or France or Scandinavia, this is
not the predominant mood of their communities. They ride powerfully
forward on a wave of confident energy, as if human life had more dawns
than sunsets in it. For the most part her pioneers are unreflective
creatures, driven by some inner force which they do not comprehend: they
are, that is perhaps no more than to say, primitive and epic in their

Is it by virtue of a literary descent from the New England school that
Miss Cather depends so frequently upon women as protagonists? Alexandra
Bergson in _O Pioneers!_, Thea Kronborg in _The Song of the Lark_,
Antonia Shimerda in _My Antonia_--around these as girls and women the
actions primarily revolve. It is not, however, as other Helens or
Gudruns that they affect their universes; they are not the darlings of
heroes but heroes themselves. Alexandra drags her dull brothers after
her and establishes the family fortunes; Antonia, less positive and more
pathetic, still holds the center of her retired stage by her rich,
warm, deep goodness; Thea, a genius in her own right, outgrows her
Colorado birthplace and becomes a famous singer with all the fierce
energy of a pioneer who happens to be an instinctive artist rather than
an instinctive manager, like Alexandra, or an instinctive mother, like
Antonia. And is it because women are here protagonists that neither
wars, as among the ancients, nor machines, as among the moderns, promote
the principal activities of the characters? Less the actions than the
moods of these novels have the epic air. Narrow as Miss Cather's scene
may be, she fills it with a spaciousness and candor of personality that
quite transcends the gnarled eccentricity and timid inhibitions of the
local colorists. Passion blows through her chosen characters like a
free, wholesome, if often devastating wind; it does not, as with Miss
Jewett and her contemporaries, lurk in furtive corners or hide itself
altogether. And as these passions are most commonly the passions of
home-keeping women, they lie nearer to the core of human existence than
if they arose out of the complexities of a wider region.

Something more than Miss Cather's own experience first upon the frontier
and then among artists and musicians has held her almost entirely to
those two worlds as the favored realms of her imagination. In them,
rather than in bourgeois conditions, she finds the theme most congenial
to her interest and to her powers. That theme is the struggle of some
elect individual to outgrow the restrictions laid upon him--or more
frequently her--by numbing circumstances. The early, somewhat
inconsequential _Alexander's Bridge_ touches this theme, though Bartley
Alexander, like the bridge he is building, fails under the strain,
largely by reason of a flawed simplicity and a divided energy. Pioneers
and artists, in Miss Cather's understanding of their natures, are
practically equals in single-mindedness; at least they work much by
themselves, contending with definite though ruthless obstacles and
looking forward, if they win, to a freedom which cannot be achieved in
the routine of crowded communities. To become too much involved, for her
characters, is to lose their quality. There is Marie Tovesky, in _O
Pioneers!_, whom nothing more preventable than her beauty and gaiety
drags into a confused status and so on to catastrophe. Antonia, tricked
into a false relation by her scoundrel lover, and Alexandra, nagged at
by her stodgy family because her suitor is poor, suffer temporary
eclipses from which only their superb health of character finally
extricates them. Thea Kronborg, troubled by the swarming sensations of
her first year in Chicago, has to find her true self again in that
marvelous desert canyon in Arizona where hot sun and bright, cold water
and dim memories of the cliff-dwelling Ancient People detach her from
the stupid faces which have haunted and unnerved her.

Miss Cather would not belong to her generation if she did not resent the
trespasses which the world regularly commits upon pioneers and artists.
For all the superb vitality of her frontier, it faces--and she knows it
faces--the degradation of its wild freedom and beauty by clumsy towns,
obese vulgarity, the uniform of a monotonous standardization. Her heroic
days endure but a brief period before extinction comes. Then her
high-hearted pioneers survive half as curiosities in a new order; and
their spirits, transmitted to the artists who are their legitimate
successors, take up the old struggle in a new guise. In the short story
called _The Sculptor's Funeral_ she lifts her voice in swift anger and
in _A Gold Slipper_ she lowers it to satirical contempt against the dull
souls who either misread distinction or crassly overlook it.

At such moments she enlists in the crusade against dulness which has
recently succeeded the hereditary crusade of American literature against
wickedness. But from too complete an absorption in that transient war
she is saved by the same strength which has lifted her above the more
trivial concerns of local color. The older school uncritically delighted
in all the village singularities it could discover; the newer school no
less uncritically condemns and ridicules all the village
conventionalities. Miss Cather has seldom swung far either to the right
or to the left in this controversy. She has, apparently, few revenges to
take upon the communities in which she lived during her expanding youth.
An eye bent too relentlessly upon dulness could have found it in
Alexandra Bergson, with her slow, unimaginative thrift; or in Antonia
Shimerda, who is a "hired girl" during the days of her tenderest beauty
and the hard-worked mother of many children on a distant farm to the end
of the story. Miss Cather, almost alone among her peers in this decade,
understands that human character for its own sake has a claim upon human
interest, surprisingly irrespective of the moral or intellectual
qualities which of course condition and shape it.

"Her secret?" says Harsanyi of Thea Kronborg in _The Song of the Lark_.
"It is every artist's secret ... passion. It is an open secret, and
perfectly safe. Like heroism, it is inimitable in cheap materials." In
these words Miss Cather furnishes an admirable commentary upon the
strong yet subtle art which she herself practises. Fiction habitually
strives to reproduce passion and heroism and in all but chosen instances
falls below the realities because it has not truly comprehended them or
because it tries to copy them in cheap materials. It is not Miss
Cather's lucid intelligence alone, though that too is indispensable,
which has kept her from these ordinary blunders of the novelist: she
herself has the energy which enables her to feel passion and the honesty
which enables her to reproduce it. Something of the large tolerance
which she must have felt in Whitman before she borrowed from him the
title of _O Pioneers!_ breathes in all her work. Like him she has tasted
the savor of abounding health; like him she has exulted in the sense of
vast distances, the rapture of the green earth rolling through space,
the consciousness of past and future striking hands in the radiant
present; like him she enjoys "powerful uneducated persons" both as the
means to a higher type and as ends honorable in themselves. At the same
time she does not let herself run on in the ungirt dithyrambs of Whitman
or into his followers' glorification of sheer bulk and impetus. Taste
and intelligence hold her passion in hand. It is her distinction that
she combines the merits of those oddly matched progenitors, Miss Jewett
and Walt Whitman: she has the delicate tact to paint what she sees with
clean, quiet strokes; and she has the strength to look past casual
surfaces to the passionate center of her characters.

The passion of the artist, the heroism of the pioneer--these are the
human qualities Miss Cather knows best. Compared with her artists the
artists of most of her contemporaries seem imitated in cheap materials.
They suffer, they rebel, they gesticulate, they pose, they fail through
success, they succeed through failure; but only now and then do they
have the breathing, authentic reality of Miss Cather's painters and
musicians. Musicians she knows best among artists--perhaps has been most
interested in them and has associated most with them because of the
heroic vitality which a virtuoso must have to achieve any real eminence.
The poet may languish over verses in his garret, the painter or sculptor
over work conceived and executed in a shy privacy; but the great singer
must be an athlete and an actor, training for months and years for the
sake of a few hours of triumph before a throbbing audience. It is,
therefore, not upon the revolt of Thea Kronborg from her Colorado
village that Miss Cather lays her chief stress but upon the girl's hard,
unspeculative, daemonic integrity. She lifts herself from alien
conditions hardly knowing what she does, almost as a powerful animal
shoulders its instinctive way through scratching underbrush to food and
water. Thea may be checked and delayed by all sorts of human
complications but her deeper nature never loses the sense of its proper
direction. Ambition with her is hardly more than the passion of
self-preservation in a potent spirit.

That Miss Cather no less truly understands the quieter attributes of
heroism is made evident by the career of Antonia Shimerda--of Miss
Cather's heroines the most appealing. Antonia exhibits the ordinary
instincts of self-preservation hardly at all. She is gentle and
confiding; service to others is the very breath of her being. Yet so
deep and strong is the current of motherhood which runs in her that it
extricates her from the level of mediocrity as passion itself might fail
to do. Goodness, so often negative and annoying, amounts in her to an
heroic effluence which imparts the glory of reality to all it touches.
"She lent herself to immemorial human attitudes which we recognize as
universal and true.... She had only to stand in the orchard, to put her
hand on a little crab tree and look up at the apples, to make you feel
the goodness of planting and tending and harvesting at last.... She was
a rich mine of life, like the founders of early races." It is not easy
even to say things so illuminating about a human being; it is all but
impossible to create one with such sympathetic art that words like these
at the end confirm and interpret an impression already made.

_My Antonia_, following _O Pioneers!_ and _The Song of the Lark_, holds
out a promise for future development that the work of but two or three
other established American novelists holds out. Miss Cather's recent
volume of short stories _Youth and the Bright Medusa_, striking though
it is, represents, it may be hoped, but an interlude in her brilliant
progress. Such passion as hers only rests itself in brief tales and
satire; then it properly takes wing again to larger regions of the
imagination. Vigorous as it is, its further course cannot easily be
foreseen; it has not the kind of promise that can be discounted by
confident expectations. Her art, however, to judge it by its past
career, can be expected to move in the direction of firmer structure and
clearer outline. After all she has written but three novels and it is
not to be wondered at that they all have about them certain of the
graceful angularities of an art not yet complete. _O Pioneers!_ contains
really two stories; _The Song of the Lark_, though Miss Cather cut away
an entire section at the end, does not maintain itself throughout at the
full pitch of interest; the introduction to _My Antonia_ is largely
superfluous. Having freed herself from the bondage of "plot" as she has
freed herself from an inheritance of the softer sentiments, Miss Cather
has learned that the ultimate interest of fiction inheres in character.
It is a question whether she can ever reach the highest point of which
she shows signs of being capable unless she makes up her mind that it is
as important to find the precise form for the representation of a
memorable character as it is to find the precise word for the expression
of a memorable idea. At present she pleads that if she must sacrifice
something she would rather it were form than reality. If she desires
sufficiently she can have both.


Joseph Hergesheimer employs his creative strategy over the precarious
terrain of the decorative arts, some of his work lying on each side of
the dim line which separates the most consummate artifice of which the
hands of talent are capable from the essential art which springs
naturally from the instincts of genius. On the side of artifice,
certainly, lie several of the shorter stories in _Gold and Iron_ and
_The Happy End_, for which, he declares, his grocer is as responsible as
any one; and on the side of art, no less certainly, lie at least _Java
Head_, in which artifice, though apparent now and then, repeatedly
surrenders the field to an art which is admirably authentic, and _Linda
Condon_, nearly the most beautiful American novel since Hawthorne and
Henry James.

Standing thus in a middle ground between art and artifice Mr.
Hergesheimer stands also in a middle ground between the unrelieved
realism of the newer school of American fiction and the genteel moralism
of the older. "I had been spared," he says with regard to moralism, "the
dreary and impertinent duty of improving the world; the whole discharge
of my responsibility was contained in the imperative obligation to see
with relative truth, to put down the colors and scents and emotions of
existence." And with regard to realism: "If I could put on paper an
apple tree rosy with blossom, someone else might discuss the economy of
the apples."

Mr. Hergesheimer does not, of course, merely blunder into beauty; his
methods are far from being accidental; by deliberate aims and principles
he holds himself close to the regions of the decorative. He likes the
rococo and the Victorian, ornament without any obvious utility, grace
without any busy function. He refuses to feel confident that the passing
of elegant privilege need be a benefit: "A maze of clipped box, old
emerald sod, represented a timeless striving for superiority, for, at
least, the illusion of triumph over the littorals of slime; and their
destruction in waves of hysteria, sentimentality, and envy was
immeasurably disastrous." For himself he clings sturdily, ardently, to
loveliness wherever he finds it--preferring, however, its richer, its
elaborated forms.

To borrow an antithesis remarked by a brilliant critic in the work of
Amy Lowell, Mr. Hergesheimer seems at times as much concerned with the
stuffs as with the stuff of life. His landscapes, his interiors, his
costumes he sets forth with a profusion of exquisite details which gives
his texture the semblance of brocade--always gorgeous but now and then a
little stiff with its splendors of silk and gold. An admitted personal
inclination to "the extremes of luxury" struggles in Mr. Hergesheimer
with an artistic passion for "words as disarmingly simple as the leaves
of spring--as simple and as lovely in pure color--about the common
experience of life and death"; and more than anything else this conflict
explains the presence in all but his finest work of occasional heavy
elements which weight it down and the presence in his most popular
narratives of a constant lift of beauty and lucidity which will not let
them sag into the average.

One comes tolerably close to the secret of Mr. Hergesheimer's career by
perceiving that, with an admirable style of which he is both conscious
and--very properly--proud, he has looked luxuriously through the world
for subjects which his style will fit. Particularly has he emancipated
himself from bondage to nook and corner. The small inland towns of _The
Lay Anthony_, the blue Virginia valleys of _Mountain Blood_, the
evolving Pennsylvania iron districts of _The Three Black Pennys_, the
antique Massachusetts of _Java Head_, the fashionable hotels and houses
of _Linda Condon_, the scattered exotic localities of the short
stories--in all these Mr. Hergesheimer is at home with the cool
insouciance of genius, at home as he could not be without an erudition
founded in the keenest observation and research.

At the same time, he has not satisfied himself with the bursting
catalogues of some types of naturalism. "The individuality of places and
hours absorbed me ... the perception of the inanimate moods of place....
Certainly houses and night and hills were often more vivid to me than
the people in or out of them." He has loved the scenes wherein his
events are transacted; he has brooded over their moods, their
significances. Neither pantheistic, however, nor very speculative, Mr.
Hergesheimer does not endow places with a half-divine, a half-satanic
sentience; instead he works more nearly in the fashion of his master
Turgenev, or of Flaubert, scrutinizing the surfaces of landscapes and
cities and human habitations until they gradually reveal what--for the
particular observer--is the essence of their charm or horror, and come,
obedient to the evoking imagination, into the picture.

Substantial as Mr. Hergesheimer makes his scene by a masterful handling
of locality, he goes still further, adds still another dimension, by his
equally masterful handling of the past as an element in his microcosm.
"There was at least this to be said for what I had, in writing, laid
back in point of time--no one had charged me with an historical novel,"
he boasts. Readers in general hardly notice how large a use of history
appears in, for instance, _The Three Black Pennys_ and _Java Head_. The
one goes as far back as to colonial Pennsylvania for the beginning of
its chronicle and the other as far as to Salem in the days of the first
clipper ship; and yet by no paraphernalia of languid airs or archaic
idioms or strutting heroics does either of the novels fall into the
orthodox historical tradition. They have the vivid, multiplied detail of
a contemporary record. And this is the more notable for the reason that
the characters in each of them stand against the background of a highly
technical profession--that of iron-making through three generations,
that of shipping under sail to all the quarters of the earth. The
wharves of Mr. Hergesheimer's Salem, the furnaces of his Myrtle Forge,
are thick with accurate, pungent, delightful facts.

If he has explored the past in a deliberate hunt for picturesque images
of actuality with which to incrust his narrative, and has at
times--particularly in _The Three Black Pennys_--given it an exaggerated
patina, nevertheless he has refused to yield himself to the mere spell
of the past and has regularly subdued its "colors and scents and
emotions" to his own purposes. His materials may be rococo, but not his
use of them. The conflict between his personal preference for luxury and
his artistic passion for austerity shows itself in his methods with
history: though the historical periods which interest him are bounded,
one may say, by the minuet and the music-box, he permits the least
possible contagion of prettiness to invade his plots. They are fresh and
passionate, simple and real, however elaborate their trappings. With the
fullest intellectual sophistication, Mr. Hergesheimer has artistically
the courage of naivete. He subtracts nothing from the common realities
of human character when he displays it in some past age, but preserves
it intact. The charming erudition of his surfaces is added to reality,
not substituted for it.

Without question the particular triumph of these novels is the women who
appear in them. Decorative art in fiction has perhaps never gone
farther than with Taou Yuen, the marvelous Manchu woman brought home
from Shanghai to Salem as wife of a Yankee skipper in _Java Head_. She
may be taken as focus and symbol of Mr. Hergesheimer's luxurious
inclinations. By her bewildering complexity of costume, by her intricate
ceremonial observances, by the impenetrability of her outward demeanor,
she belongs rather to art than to life--an Oriental Galatea radiantly
adorned but not wholly metamorphosed from her native marble. Only at
intervals does some glimpse or other come of the tender flesh shut up in
her magnificent garments or of the tender spirit schooled by flawless,
immemorial discipline to an absolute decorum. That such glimpses come
just preserves her from appearing a mere figure of tapestry, a fine
mechanical toy. The Salem which before her arrival seems quaintly formal
enough immediately thereafter seems by contrast raw and new, and her
beauty glitters like a precious gem in some plain man's house.

Much the same effect, on a less vivid scale, is produced in _The Three
Black Pennys_ by the presence on the Pennsylvania frontier--it is almost
that--of Ludowika Winscombe, who has always lived at Court and who
brings new fragrances, new dainty rites, into the forest; and in
_Mountain Blood_ by the presence among the Appalachian highlands of that
ivory, icy meretrix Meta Beggs who plans to drive the best possible
bargain for her virgin favors. Meta carries the decorative traits of Mr.
Hergesheimer's women to the point at which they suggest the marionette
too much; by his methods, of course, he habitually runs the risk of
leaving the flesh and blood out of his women. He leaves out, at least,
with no fluttering compunctions, any special concern for the simpler
biological aspects of the sex: "It was not what the woman had in common
with a rabbit that was important, but her difference. On one hand that
difference was moral, but on the other aesthetic; and I had been
absorbed by the latter." "I couldn't get it into my head that
loveliness, which had a trick of staying in the mind at points of death
when all service was forgotten, was rightly considered to be of less
importance than the sweat of some kitchen drudge."

Such robust doctrine is a long way from the customary sentimentalism of
novelists about maids, wives, mothers, and widows. Indeed, Mr.
Hergesheimer, like Poe before him, inclines very definitely toward
beauty rather than toward humanity, where distinctions may be drawn
between them. In Linda Condon, however, his most remarkable creation, he
has brought humanity and beauty together in an intimate fusion. Less
exotic than Taou Yuen, Linda, with her straight black bang and her
extravagant simplicity of taste, is no less exquisite. And like Taou
Yuen she affords Mr. Hergesheimer the opportunity he most desires--"to
realize that sharp sense of beauty which came from a firm, delicate
consciousness of certain high pretensions, valors, maintained in the
face of imminent destruction.... In that category none was sharper than
the charm of a woman, soon to perish, in a vanity of array as momentary
and iridescent as a May-fly." It is as the poet musing upon the fleet
passage of beauty rather than as the satirist mocking at the vanity of
human wishes that Mr. Hergesheimer traces the career of Linda Condon;
but both poet and satirist meet in his masterpiece.

A woman as lovely as a lyric, she is almost as insensible as a steel
blade or a bright star. The true marvel is that beauty so cold can
provoke such conflagrations. Granted--and certain subtle women decline
to grant it--that Linda with her shining emptiness could have kindled
the passion she kindles in the story, what must be the blackness of her
discovery that when her beauty goes she will have left none of the
generous affection which, had she herself given it through life, she
might by this time have earned in quantities sufficient to endow and
compensate her for old age! Mr. Hergesheimer does not soften the blow
when it comes--he even adds to her agony the clear consciousness that
she cannot feel her plight as more passionate natures might. But he
allows her, at the last, an intimation of immortality. From her
unresponding beauty, she sees, her sculptor lover has caught a madness
eventually sublimated to a Platonic vision which, partially forgetful of
her as an individual, has made him and his works great. Without, in the
common way, modeling her at all, he has snared the essence of her spirit
and has set it--as such mortal things go--everlastingly in bronze.

If Mr. Hergesheimer offers Linda in the end only the hard comfort of a
perception come at largely through her intellect, still as far as the
art of his novel is concerned he has immensely gained by his refusal to
make any trivial concession to natural weaknesses. His latest conclusion
is his best. _The Lay Anthony_ ends in accident, _Mountain Blood_ in
melodrama; _The Three Black Pennys_, more successful than its
predecessors, fades out like the Penny line; _Java Head_ turns sharply
away from its central theme, almost as if _Hamlet_ should concern itself
during a final scene with Horatio's personal perplexities. Now the
conclusions of a novelist are on the whole the test of his judgment and
his honesty; and it promises much for fiction that Mr. Hergesheimer has
advanced so steadily in this respect through his seven books.

He has advanced, too, in his use of decoration, which reached its most
sumptuous in _Java Head_ and which in _Linda Condon_ happily began to
show a more austere control. The question which criticism asks is
whether Mr. Hergesheimer has not gone as far as a practitioner of the
decorative arts can go, and whether he ought not, during the remainder
of the eminent career which awaits him, to work rather in the direction
marked by _Linda Condon_ than in that marked by _Java Head_. The rumor
that his friends advise him to become a "period novelist" must disquiet
his admirers--even those among them who cannot think him likely to act
upon advice so dangerous to his art. Doubtless he could go on and write
another _Salammbo,_ but he does not need to: he has already written
_Java Head_. When a novelist has reached the limits of decoration there
still stretches out before him the endless road--which Mr. Hergesheimer
has given evidence that he can travel--of the interpretation and
elucidation of human character and its devious fortunes in the world.




_Ellen Glasgow_

Fiction, no less than life, has its broad flats and shallows from which
distinction emerges only now and then, when some superior veracity or
beauty or energy lifts a novelist or a novel above the mortal average.
Consider, for example, the work of Ellen Glasgow. In her representations
of contemporary Virginia she long stood with the local colorists,
practising with more grace than strength what has come to seem an older
style; in her heroic records of the Virginia of the Civil War and
Reconstruction she frequently fell into the orthodox monotone of the
historical romancers. By virtue of two noticeable qualities, however,
she has in her later books emerged from the level established by the
majority and has ranged herself with writers who seem newer and fresher
than her early models.

One quality is her sense for the texture of life, which imparts to _The
Miller of Old Church_ a thickness of atmosphere decisively above that of
most local color novels. She has admitted into her story various classes
of society which traditional Virginia fiction regularly neglects; she
has enriched her narrative with fresh and sweet descriptions of the soft
Virginia landscape; she has bound her plot together with the best of all
ligatures--intelligence. If certain of her characters--Abel Revercomb,
Reuben Merryweather, Betsey Bottom--seem at times a little too much like
certain of Thomas Hardy's rustics, still the resemblance is hardly
greater than that which actually exists between parts of rural Virginia
and rural Wessex; Miss Glasgow is at least as faithful to her scene as
if she had devoted herself solely to a chronicle of rich planters, poor
whites, and obeisant freedmen. Without any important sacrifice of
reality she has enlarged her material by lifting it toward the plane of
the pastoral and rounding it out with poetic abundance instead of
whittling it down with provincial shrewdness or weakening it with
village sentimentalism.

That she does not lack shrewdness appears from the evidences in _Life
and Gabriella_ and still more in _Virginia_ of her second distinctive
quality--a critical attitude toward the conventions of her locality. In
one Miss Glasgow exhibits a modern Virginia woman breaking her medieval
shell in New York; in the other she examines the subsequent career of a
typical Southern heroine launched into life with no equipment but
loveliness and innocence. Loveliness, Virginia finds, may fade and
innocence may become a nuisance if wisdom happens to be needed. She
fails to understand and eventually to "hold" her husband; she gives
herself so completely to her children that in the end she has nothing
left for herself and is tragically dispensable to them. _Virginia_ is at
once the most thorough and the most pathetic picture extant of the
American woman as Victorianism conceived and shaped and misfitted her.
But the book is much more than a tract for feminism to point to: it is
unexpectedly full and civilized, packed with observation, tinctured with
omen and irony.

_William Allen White_

If Miss Glasgow emerges considerably--though not immensely--above the
deadly levels of fiction, so does William Allen White. What lifts him is
his hearty, bubbling energy. He has the courage of all his convictions,
of all his sentiments, of all his laughter, of all his tears. He has a
multitude of right instincts and sound feelings, and he habitually
reverts to them in the intervals between his stricter hours of thought.
Such stricter hours he is far from lacking. They address themselves
especially to the task of showing why and how corruption works in
politics and of tracing those effects of private greed which ruin souls
and torture societies. The hero-villains of _A Certain Rich Man_ and of
_In the Heart of a Fool_ tread all the paths of selfishness and come to
hard ends in punishment for the offense of counting the head higher than
the heart.

These books being crowded with quite obvious doctrine it is fair to say
of them that they directly inculcate the life of simple human virtues
and services and accuse the grosser American standards of success. They
do this important thing within the limits of moralism, progressivism,
and optimism. John Barclay, the rich man, when his evil course is run,
hastily, unconvincingly divests himself of his spoils and loses his life
in an heroic accident. Thomas Van Dorn, the fool, finally arrives at
desolation because there has been no God in his heart, but he has no
more instructive background for a contrast to folly than the spectacle
of a nation entering the World War with what is here regarded as a vast
purgation, a magnificent assertion of the divinity in mankind. How such
a conclusion withers in the light and fire of time! Right instincts and
sound feelings are not, after all, enough for a novelist: somewhere in
his work there must appear an intelligence undiverted by even the
kindliest intentions; much as he must be of his world, he must be also
in some degree outside it as well as above it.

Yet to be of his world with such knowledge as Mr. White has of Kansas
gives him one kind of distinction if not a different kind. His two
longer narratives sweep epically down from the days of settlement to the
time when the frontier order disappeared under the pressure of change.
He has a moving erudition in the history and characters and motives and
humors of the small inland town; no one has ever known more about the
outward customs and behaviors of an American state than Mr. White. His
shorter stories not less than his novels are racy with actualities: he
has caught the dialect of his time and place with an ear that is
singularly exact; he has cut the costumes of his men and villages so
that hardly a wrinkle shows. In particular he understands the pathos of
boyhood, seen not so much, however, through the serious eyes of boys
themselves as through the eyes of reminiscent men reflecting upon young
joys and griefs that will shortly be left behind and upon little pomps
that can never come to anything. _The Court of Boyville_ is now
hilariously comic, now tenderly elegiac. None of Mr. White's
contemporaries has quite his power to shift from bursts of laughter to
sudden, agreeable tears. That flood of moods and words upon which he can
be swept beyond the full control of his analytical faculties is but a
symptom of the energy which, when he turns to narrative, sweeps him and
his readers out of pedestrian gaits.

_Ernest Poole_

By comparison the more critical Ernest Poole suffers from a deficiency
of both verve and humor. He began his career with the happy discovery of
a picturesque, untrodden neighborhood of New York City in _The Harbor_;
he consolidated his reputation with the thoughtful study of a troubled
father of troubling daughters in _His Family_; since then he has sounded
no new chords, strumming on his instrument as if magic had deserted him.
Perhaps it was not quite magic by which his work originally won its
hearing. There is something a little unmagical, a little mechanical,
about the fancy which personifies the harbor of New York and makes it
recur and reverberate throughout that first novel. The matter was
significant, but the manner seems only at times spontaneous and at times
only industrious. Intelligence, ideas, observations, perception--these
hold up well in _The Harbor_; it is poetry that flags, though poetry is
invoked to carry out the pattern. Over humor Mr. Poole has but moderate
power, as he has perhaps but moderate interest in it: his characters are
themselves either fiercely or sadly serious, and they are seen with an
eye which has not quite the forgiveness of laughter or the pity of
disillusion. Roger Gale in _His Family_ broods, mystified, over what
seems to him the drift of his daughters into the furious currents of a
new age. Yet they fall into three categories--with some American
reservations--of mother, nun, courtesan, about which there is nothing
new; and all the tragic elements of the book are almost equally ancient.
Without the spacious vision which sees eternities in hours _His Family_
contents itself too much with being a document upon a particular hour of
history. It has more kindliness than criticism.

Mr. Poole, one hates to have to say, is frequently rather less than
serious: he is earnest; at moments he is hardly better than merely
solemn. Nevertheless, _The Harbor_ and _His Family_--_His Family_ easily
the better of the two--are works of honest art and excellent documents
upon a generation. Mr. Poole feels the earth reeling beneath the
desperate feet of men; he sees the millions who are hopelessly
bewildered; he hears the cries of rage and fear coming from those who
foretell chaos; he catches the exaltation of those who imagine that
after so long a shadow the sunshine of freedom and justice will shortly
break upon them. With many generous expectations he waits for the
revolution which shall begin the healing of the world's wounds.
Meanwhile he paints the dissolving lineaments of the time in colors
which his own softness keeps from being very stern or very deep but
which are gentle and appealing.

_Henry B. Fuller_

The peculiar strength and the peculiar weakness of Henry B. Fuller lie
in his faithful habit of being a dilettante. A generation ago, when the
aesthetic poets and critics were in bloom, Mr. Fuller in _The Chevalier
of Pensieri-Vani_ and _The Chatelaine of La Trinite_ played with
sentimental pilgrimages in Italy or the Alps, packing his narratives
with the most affectionate kind of archaeology and yet forever
scrutinizing them with a Yankee smile. A little later, when Howells's
followers had become more numerous, Mr. Fuller joined them with minute,
accurate, amused representations of Chicago in _The Cliff-Dwellers_ and
_With the Procession_. Then, as if bored with longer flights, he settled
himself to writing sharp-eyed stories concerning the life of art as
conducted in Chicago--_Under the Skylights_--and of Americans traveling
in Europe--_From the Other Side, Waldo Trench and Others_. After _Spoon
River Anthology_ Mr. Fuller took such hints from its method as he
needed in the pungent dramatic sketches of _Lines Long and Short_. One
of these sketches, called _Postponement_, has autobiography, it may be
guessed, in its ironic, wistful record of a Midwestern American who all
his life longed and planned to live in Europe but who found himself
ready to gratify his desire only in the dread summer of 1914, when peace
departed from the earth to stay away, he saw, at least as long as he
could hope to live. There is the note of intimate experience, if not of
autobiography, in these lucid words spoken about the hero of _On the
Stairs_: "he wanted to be an artist and give himself out; he wanted to
be a gentleman and hold himself in. An entangling, ruinous paradox."

Fate, if not fatalism, has kept Mr. Fuller, this dreamer about old
lands, always resident in the noisiest city of the newest land and
always less, it seems, than thoroughly expressive. Had there been more
passion in his constitution he might, perhaps, have either detached
himself from Chicago altogether or submerged himself in it to a point of
reconciliation. But passion is precisely what Mr. Fuller seems to lack
or to be chary of. He dwells above the furies. As one consequence his
books, interesting as every one of them is, suffer from the absence of
emphasis. His utterance comes in the tone of an intelligent drawl.
Spiritually in exile, he lives somewhat unconcerned with the drama of
existence surrounding him, as if his gaze were farther off. Yet though
deficiency in passion has made Mr. Fuller an amateur, it has allowed him
the longest tether in the exercise of a free, penetrating intelligence.
He is not lightly jostled out of his equilibrium by petty irritations
or swept off his feet by those torrents of ready emotion which sweep
through popular fiction by their own momentum. Whenever, in _A Daughter
of the Middle Border_, Hamlin Garland brings Mr. Fuller into his story,
there is communicated the sense of a vivid intellect somehow keeping its
counsel and yet throwing off rays of suggestion and illumination.

Without much question it is by his critical faculties that Mr. Fuller
excels. He has the poetic energy to construct, but less frequently to
create. Such endowments invite him to the composition of memoirs. He
has, indeed, in _On the Stairs_, produced the memoirs, in the form of a
novel, of a Chicagoan who could never adapt himself to his native
habitat and who gradually sees the control of life slipping out of his
hands to those of other, more potent, more decisive, less divided men.
But suppose Mr. Fuller were to surrender the ironic veil of fiction
behind which he has preferred to hide his own spiritual adventures!
Suppose he were avowedly to write the history of the arts and letters in
Chicago! Suppose he were, rather more confidingly, to trace the career
of an actual, attentive dilettante in his thunderous town!

_Mary Austin_

Criticism perceives in Mary Austin the certain signs of a power which,
for reasons not entirely clear, has as yet failed to express itself
completely in forms of art. She herself prefers less to be judged by any
of her numerous books than to be regarded as a figure laboring somewhat
anonymously toward the development of a national culture founded at all
points on national realities. Behind this preference is a personal
experience which must be taken into account in any analysis of Mrs.
Austin's work. Born in Illinois, she went at twenty to California, to
live between the Sierra Nevada and the Mohave Desert. There she was soon
spiritually acclimated to the wilderness, studied among the Indians the
modes of aboriginal life, and in time came to bear the relation almost
of a prophetess to the people among whom she lived. Her first book, _The
Land of Little Rain_, interpreted the desert chiefly as landscape. Since
then she has, it may be said, employed the desert as a measure of life,
constantly bringing from it a sense for the primal springs of existence
into all her comment upon human affairs. _The Man Jesus_ examines the
career of a desert-dweller who preached a desert-wisdom to a confused
world. Her play _The Arrow Maker_ exhibits the behavior and fortunes of
a desert-seeress among her own people. _Love and the Soul-Maker_
anatomizes love as a primal force struggling with and through
civilization. From Paiute and Shoshone medicine men, the only poets Mrs.
Austin knew during her formative years, she acquired that grounding in
basic rhythms which led her to write free verse years before it became
the fashion in sophisticated circles and persuaded her that American
poetry cannot afford to overlook the experiments and successes of the
first American poets in fitting expression to the actual conditions of
the continent.

It has been of course a regular tradition among novelists in the United
States to weigh the "settlements" in a balance and to represent them as
lacking the hardy virtues of the backwoods. Mrs. Austin goes beyond this
naive process. Whether she deals with the actual frontier--as in
_Isidro_ or _Lost Borders_ or _The Ford_--or with more crowded, more
complex regions--as in _The Woman of Genius_ or _26 Jayne Street_--she
keeps her particular frontier in mind not as an entity or a dogma but as
a symbol of the sources of human life and society. She creates, it
seems, out of depths of reflection and out of something even deeper than
reflection. She has observed the unconscious instincts of the individual
and the long memories of the race. The effect upon her novels of such
methods has been to widen their sympathies and to warm and lift their
style; it has also been to render them sometimes defective in structure
and sometimes obscure in meaning. If they are not glib, neither are they
always clean-cut or direct. Along with her generous intelligence she has
a good deal of the stubborn wilfulness of genius, and she has never
achieved a quite satisfactory fusion of the two qualities. She wears
something like the sibyl's robes and speaks with something like the
sibyl's strong accents, but the cool, hard discipline of the artist or
of the exact scholar only occasionally serves her. Much of her
significance lies in her promise. Faithful to her original vision, she
has moved steadily onward, growing, writing no book like its
predecessor, applying her wisdom continually to new knowledge, leaving
behind her a rich detritus which she will perhaps be willing to consider
detritus if it helps to nourish subsequent generations.


The newer stocks and neighborhoods in the United States have their
fictive records as well as the longer established ones, and there is
growing up a class of immigrant books which amounts almost to a separate
department of American literature. From Denmark, Germany,
Czecho-Slovakia, Poland, Russia, Rumania, Syria, Italy have come
passionate pilgrims who have set down, mostly in plain narratives, the
chronicles of their migration. As the first Americans contended with
nature and the savages, so these late arrivals contend with men and a
civilization no less hostile toward them; their writings continue, in a
way, the earliest American tradition of a concern with the risks and
contrivances by which pioneers cut their paths. Even when the immigrants
write fiction they tend to choose the same materials and thus to fall
into formulas, which are the more observable since the writers are the
survivors in the struggle and naturally tell about the successes rather
than the failures in the process of Americanization.

Not all the stocks, of course, are equally interested in fiction or
gifted at it: the Russian Jews have the most notable novels to their
credit. Though these are generally composed by men not born in this
country, in Yiddish, and so belong to the history of that most
international of literatures, certain of them, having been translated,
belong obviously as well as actually to the common treasure of the
nation. Shalom Aleichem's _Jewish Children_ and Leon Kobrin's _A
Lithuanian Village_ surely belong, though their scenes are laid in
Europe; as do Sholom Asch's vivid, moving novels _Mottke the
Vagabond_--concerned with the underworld of Poland--and _Uncle
Moses_--concerned with the New York Ghetto--the recent translations of
which are slowly bringing to a wider American public the evidence that a
really eminent novelist has hitherto been partly hidden by his alien

There is no question whatever that the work of Abraham Cahan, Yiddish
scholar, journalist, novelist, belongs to the American nation. As far
back as the year in which Stephen Crane stirred many sensibilities with
his _Maggie_, the story of an Irish slum in Manhattan, Mr. Cahan
produced in _Yekl_ a book of similar and practically equal merit
concerning a Jewish slum in the same borough. But it and his later books
_The Imported Bridegroom and Other Stories_ and _The White Terror and
the Red_ have been overwhelmed by novels by more familiar men dealing
with more familiar communities. The same has been true even of his
masterpiece, the most important of all immigrant novels, _The Rise of
David Levinsky_. It, too, records the making of an American, originally
a reader of Talmud in a Russian village and eventually the principal
figure in the cloak and suit trade in America. But it does more than
trace the career of Levinsky through his personal adventures: it traces
the evolution of a great industry and represents the transplanted
Russian Jews with affectionate exactness in all their modes of work and
play and love--another conquest of a larger Canaan. Here are fused
American hope and Russian honesty. At the end David, with all his New
World wealth, lacks the peace he might have had but for his sacrifice of
Old World integrity and faith. And yet the novel is very quiet in its
polemic. Its hero has gained in power; he is no dummy to hang maxims on.
Moving through a varied scene, gradually shedding the outward qualities
of his race, he remains always an individual, gnawed at by love in the
midst of his ambitions, subject to frailties which test his strength.

The fact that Mr. Cahan wrote _David Levinsky_ not in his mother-tongue
but in the language of his adopted country may be taken as a sign that
American literature no less than the American population is being
enlarged by the influx of fresh materials and methods. The methods of
the Yiddish writers are, as might be expected, those of Russian fiction
generally, though in this they were anticipated by the critical
arguments of Howells and Henry James and are rivaled by the majority of
the naturalistic novelists. Their materials, as might not be expected,
have a sort of primitive power by comparison with which the orthodox
native materials of fiction seem often pale and dusty. The older
Americans, settled into smug routines, lack the vitality, the industry
of the newcomers. They are less direct and more provincial; they are
bundled up in gentilities and petty habits; they hide behind
old-fashioned reticences which soften the drama of their lives. With the
newer stocks an ancient process begins again. Their affairs are
conducted on the plane of desperate subsistence. Struggling to survive
at all, they cry out in the language of hunger and death; almost naked
in the struggle, they speak nakedly about livelihood and birth and
death. Sooner or later the immigrants must be perceived to have added
precious elements of passion and candor to American fiction.


_Edgar Lee Masters_

The newest style in American fiction dates from the appearance, in 1915,
of _Spoon River Anthology_, though it required five years for the
influence of that book to pass thoroughly over from poetry to prose. For
nearly half a century native literature had been faithful to the cult of
the village, celebrating its delicate merits with sentimental affection
and with unwearied interest digging into odd corners of the country for
persons and incidents illustrative of the essential goodness and heroism
which, so the doctrine ran, lie beneath unexciting surfaces. Certain
critical dispositions, aware of agrarian discontent or given to a
preference for cities, might now and then lay disrespectful hands upon
the life of the farm; but even these generally hesitated to touch the
village, sacred since Goldsmith in spite of Crabbe, sacred since
Washington Irving in spite of E.W. Howe.

The village seemed too cosy a microcosm to be disturbed. There it lay in
the mind's eye, neat, compact, organized, traditional: the white church
with tapering spire, the sober schoolhouse, the smithy of the ringing
anvil, the corner grocery, the cluster of friendly houses; the venerable
parson, the wise physician, the canny squire, the grasping landlord
softened or outwitted in the end; the village belle, gossip, atheist,
idiot; jovial fathers, gentle mothers, merry children; cool parlors,
shining kitchens, spacious barns, lavish gardens, fragrant summer dawns,
and comfortable winter evenings. These were elements not to be discarded
lightly, even by those who perceived that time was discarding many of
them as the industrial revolution went on planting ugly factories
alongside the prettiest brooks, bringing in droves of aliens who used
unfamiliar tongues and customs, and fouling the atmosphere with smoke
and gasoline. Mr. Howe in _The Story of a Country Town_ had long ago
made it cynically clear--to the few who read him--that villages which
prided themselves upon their pioneer energy might in fact be stagnant
backwaters or dusty centers of futility, where existence went round and
round while elsewhere the broad current moved away from them. Mark Twain
in _The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg_ had more recently put it bitterly
on record that villages which prided themselves upon their simple
virtues might from lack of temptation have become a hospitable soil for
meanness and falsehood, merely waiting for the proper seed. And Clarence
Darrow in his elegiac _Farmington_ had insisted that one village at
least had been the seat of as much restless longing as of simple bliss.
_Spoon River Anthology_ in its different dialect did little more than to
confirm these mordant, neglected testimonies.

That Mr. Masters was not neglected must be explained in part, of course,
by his different dialect. The Greek anthology had suggested to him
something which was, he said, "if less than verse, yet more than prose";
and he went, with the step of genius, beyond any "formal resuscitation
of the Greek epigrams, ironical and tender, satirical and sympathetic,
as casual experiments in unrelated themes," to an "epic rendition of
modern life" which suggests the novel in its largest aspects. An
admirable scheme occurred to him: he would imagine a graveyard such as
every American village has and would equip it with epitaphs of a
ruthless veracity such as no village ever saw put into words. The effect
was as if all the few honest epitaphs in the world had suddenly come
together in one place and sent up a shout of revelation.

Conventional readers had the thrill of being shocked and of finding an
opportunity to defend the customary reticences; ironical readers had the
delight of coming upon a host of witnesses to the contrast which irony
perpetually observes between appearance and reality; readers militant
for the "truth" discovered an occasion to demand that pious fictions
should be done away with and the naked facts exposed to the sanative
glare of noon. And all these readers, most of them unconsciously no
doubt, shared the fearful joy of sitting down at an almost incomparably
abundant feast of scandal. Where now were the mild decencies of
Tiverton, of Old Chester, of Friendship Village? The roofs and walls of
Spoon River were gone and the passers-by saw into every bedroom; the
closets were open and all the skeletons rattled undenied; brains and
breasts had unlocked themselves and set their most private treasures out
for the most public gaze.

It was the scandal and not the poetry of _Spoon River_, criticism may
suspect, which particularly spread its fame. Mr. Masters used an
especial candor in affairs of sex, an instinct which, secretive
everywhere, has rarely ever been so much so as in the American villages
of fiction, where love ordinarily exhibited itself in none but the
chastest phases, as if it knew no savage vagaries, transgressed no
ordinances, shook no souls out of the approved routines. Reaction from
too much sweet drove Mr. Masters naturally to too much sour; sex in
Spoon River slinks and festers, as if it were an instinct which had not
been schooled--however imperfectly--by thousands of years of human
society to some modification of its rages and some civil direction of
its restless power. But here, as with the other aspects of behavior in
his village, he showed himself impatient, indeed violent, toward all
subterfuges. There is filth, he said in effect, behind whited
sepulchers; drag it into the light and such illusions will no longer
trick the uninstructed into paying honor where no honor appertains and
will no longer beckon the deluded to an imitation of careers which are
actually unworthy.

Spoon River has not even the outward comeliness which the village of
tradition should possess: it is slack and shabby. Nor is its decay
chronicled in any mood of tender pathos. What strikes its chronicler
most is the general demoralization of the town. Except for a few saints
and poets, whom he acclaims with a lyric ardor, the population is sunk
in greed and hypocrisy and--as if this were actually the worst of
all--complacent apathy. Spiritually it dwindles and rots; externally it
clings to a pitiless decorum which veils its faults and almost makes it
overlook them, so great has the breach come to be between its practices
and its professions. Again and again its poet goes back to the heroic
founders of Spoon River, back to the days which nurtured Lincoln, whose
shadow lies mighty, beneficent, too often unheeded, over the degenerate
sons and daughters of a smaller day; and from an older, robuster
integrity Mr. Masters takes a standard by which he morosely measures the
purposelessness and furtiveness and supineness and dulness of the
village which has forgotten its true ancestors.

Anger like his springs from a poetic elevation of spirit; toward the end
_Spoon River Anthology_ rises to a mystical vision of human life by
comparison with which the scavenging epitaphs of the first half seem,
though witty, yet insolent and trivial. It is perhaps not necessary to
point out that the numerous poets and novelists who have learned a
lesson from the book have learned it less powerfully from the difficult
later pages than from those in which the text is easiest.

Mr. Masters himself has not always remembered the harder and better
lesson. During a half dozen years he has published more than a half
dozen books which have all inherited the credit of the _Anthology_ but
which all betray the turbulent, nervous habit of experimentation which
makes up a large share of his literary character. There comes to mind
the figure of a blind-folded Apollo, eager and lusty, who continually
runs forward on the trail of poetry and truth but who, because of his
blindfoldedness, only now and then strikes the central track. Five of
Mr. Masters's later books are collections of miscellaneous verse; during
the fruitful year 1920 he undertook two longer flights of fiction. In
_Mitch Miller_ he attempted in prose to write a new _Tom Sawyer_ for the
Spoon River district; in _Domesday Book_ he applied the method of _The
Ring and the Book_ to the material of Starved Rock. The impulse of the
first must have been much the same as Mark Twain's: a desire to catch in
a stouter net than memory itself the recollections of boyhood which
haunt disillusioned men. But as Mr. Masters is immensely less boylike
than Mark Twain, elegy and argument thrust themselves into the chronicle
of Mitch and Skeet, with an occasional tincture of a fierce hatred felt
toward the politics and theology of Spoon River. A story of boyhood,
that lithe, muscular age, cannot carry such a burden of doctrine. The
narrative is tangled in a snarl of moods. Its movement is often thick,
its wings often gummed and heavy.

The same qualities may be noted in _Domesday Book_. Its scheme and
machinery are promising: a philosophical coroner, holding his inquest
over the body of a girl found mysteriously dead, undertakes to trace the
mystery not only to its immediate cause but up to its primary source and
out to its remotest consequences. At times the tale means to be an
allegory of America during the troubled, roiled, destroying years of the
war; at times it means to be a "census spiritual" of American society.
Elenor Murray, in her birth and love and sufferings and desperate end,
is represented as pure nature, "essential genius," acting out its fated
processes in a world of futile or corrupting inhibitions. But Mr.
Masters has less skill at portraying the sheer genius of an individual
than at arraigning the inhibitions of the individual's society. When he
steps down from his watch-tower of irony he can hate as no other
American poet does. His hates, however, do not always pass into poetry;
they too frequently remain hard, sullen masses of animosity not fused
with his narrative but standing out from it and adding an unmistakable
personal rhythm to the rough beat of his verse. So, too, do his heaps of
turgid learning and his scientific speculations often remain undigested.
A good many of his characters are cut to fit the narrative plan, not
chosen from reality to make up the narrative. The total effect is often
crude and heavy; and yet beneath these uncompleted surfaces are the
sinews of enormous power: a greedy gusto for life, a wide imaginative
experience, tumultuous uprushes; of emotion and expression, an acute if
undisciplined intelligence, great masses of the veritable stuff of
existence out of which great novels are made.

_Sherwood Anderson_

_Spoon River Anthology_ has called forth a smaller number of deliberate
imitations than might have been expected, and even they have utilized
its method with a difference. Sherwood Anderson, for example, in
_Winesburg, Ohio_ speaks in accents and rhythms obstinately his own,
though his book is, in effect, the _Anthology_ "transprosed." Instead of
inventing Winesburg immediately after Spoon River became famous he began
his career more regularly, with the novels _Windy McPherson's Son_ and
_Marching Men_, in which he employed what has become the formula of
revolt for recent naturalism. In both stories a superior youth, of
rebellious energy and somewhat inarticulate ambition, detaches himself
in disgust from his native village and makes his way to the city in
search of that wealth which is the only thing the village has ever
taught him to desire though it is unable to gratify his desires itself;
and in both the youth, turned man, finds himself sickening with his
prize in his hands and looks about him for some clue to the meaning of
the mad world in which he has succeeded without satisfaction. Sam
McPherson, after a futile excursion through the proletariat in search of
the peace which he has heard accompanies honest toil, settles down to
the task of bringing up some children he has adopted and thus of forcing
himself "back into the ranks of life." Beaut McGregor, refusing a
handsome future at the bar, sets out to organize the workers of Chicago
into marching men who drill in the streets and squares at night that
they may be prepared for action if only they can find some sort of goal
to march upon.

These novels ache with the sense of a dumb confusion in America; with a
consciousness "of how men, coming out of Europe and given millions of
square miles of black fertile land mines and forests, have failed in the
challenge given them by fate and have produced out of the stately order
of nature only the sordid disorder of man." Out of this ache of
confusion comes no lucidity. Sam McPherson is not sure but that he will
find parenthood as petty as business was brutal; Beaut McGregor sets his
men to marching and their orderly step resounds through the final
chapters of his career as here recorded, but no one knows what will come
of it--they advance and wheel and retreat as blindly as any horde of
peasants bound for a war about which they do not know the causes, in a
distant country of which they have never heard the name. Mr. Anderson
worked in his first books as if he were assembling documents on the eve
of revolution. Village peace and stability have departed; ancient
customs break or fade; the leaven of change stirs the lump.

From such arguments he turned aside to follow Mr. Masters into verse
with _Mid-American Chants_ and into scandal with _Winesburg, Ohio_. But
touching scandal with beauty as his predecessor touched it with irony,
Mr. Anderson constantly transmutes it. The young man who here sets out
to make his fortune has not greatly hated Winesburg, and the imminence
of his departure throws a vaguely golden mist over the village, which is
seen in considerable measure through his generous if inexperienced eyes.
A newspaper reporter, he directs his principal curiosity towards items
of life outside the commonplace and thus offers Mr. Anderson the
occasion to explore the moral and spiritual hinterlands of men and women
who outwardly walk paths strict enough.

If the life of the tribe is unadventurous, he seems to say, there is
still the individual, who, perhaps all the more because of the rigid
decorums forced upon him, may adventure with secret desires through
pathless space. Only, the pressure of too many inhibitions can distort
human spirits into grotesque forms. The inhabitants of Winesburg tend
toward the grotesque, now this organ of the soul enlarged beyond all
symmetry, now that wasted away in a desperate disuse. They see visions
which in some wider world might become wholesome realities or might be
dispelled by the light but which in Winesburg must lurk about till they
master and madden with the strength which the darkness gives them.
Religion, deprived in Winesburg of poetry, fritters its time away over
Pharisaic ordinances or evaporates in cloudy dreams; sex, deprived of
spontaneity, settles into fleshly habit or tortures its victim with the
malice of a thwarted devil; heroism of deed or thought either withers
into melancholy inaction or else protects itself with a sullen or
ridiculous bravado.

Yet even among such pitiful surroundings Mr. Anderson walks tenderly. He
honors youth, he feels beauty, he understands virtue, he trusts wisdom,
when he comes upon them. He broods over his creatures with affection,
though he makes no luxury of illusions. Much as he has detached himself
from the cult of the village, he still cherishes the memories of some
specific Winesburg. Much as he has detached himself from the hazy
national optimism of an elder style in American thinking, he still
cherishes a confidence in particular persons. _Winesburg, Ohio_ springs
from the more intimate regions of his mind and is consequently more
humane and less doctrinaire than his earlier novels. It has a similar
superiority over the book he wrote for 1920, _Poor White_, which returns
to the device of a bewildered strong man rising from a dull obscurity,
successful but unsatisfied. At the same time _Poor White_ proceeds from
an imagination which had been warmed with the creation of Winesburg and
its people and is richer, fuller, deeper than the angular sagas of
McPherson and McGregor. It does not yet show that Mr. Anderson can
construct a large plot or that his vision comes with a steady gleam; it
shows, rather, that he is still fumbling in the confusion of current
life to get hold of something true and simple and to make it clear.

Perhaps he tried in _Poor White_ to manipulate a larger bulk than he is
yet ready for. Perhaps because he was aware of that he has worked in his
latest book, _The Triumph of the Egg_, with a variety of brief themes
and has excelled even _Winesburg_ in both poetry and truth. At least it
is certain that he keeps on advancing in his art. Although life has not
hardened for him, and he sees it still flowing or whirling, he steadily
sharpens his outlines and perfects the fierce intensity of his style.
Will his wisdom ever catch up with his passion and his observation? In
each successive book he has revealed himself as still hot with the fever
of his day's experiences. He has yet to show that he can go through the
confusion of new spiritual adventures and then set them down,
remembering, in tranquillity.

_E.W. Howe_

With _The Anthology of Another Town_ E.W. Howe, obviously on the
suggestion of Spoon River, returned to the caustic analysis of American
village life which he may be said to have inaugurated in _The Story of a
Country Town_ almost forty years before. Then he had been young enough
to feel it necessary to invent romantic embroideries for his grim tale,
somewhat as Emily Bronte under somewhat similar circumstances has done
for _Wuthering Heights_--the novel which Mr. Howe's story most
resembles. But all his inventions were stern, full of a powerful
dissatisfaction, merciless toward the idyllic versions of country life
which sweetened the decade of the eighties. Even among the pioneers whom
Mr. Masters idealizes there were, according to the older man, slackness
and shabbiness, and at the first opportunity to take their ease in the
new world they had won from nature they sank down, too nerveless for
passion or violence, into the easy vices: idleness, whining, gossip,
drunkenness, sodden inutility. Against such qualities Mr. Howe has from
the first proceeded with the doctrines of another Franklin, but of a
Franklin without whimsical persuasions or elegant graces. Having
apparently come to the conclusion that he was a failure as a novelist
because he made no great stir with his experiments in that trade, he
confined himself to more or less orthodox journalism for a generation,
and then, retiring, founded his organ of "indignation and
information"--_E.W. Howe's Monthly_--and began to pour forth the stream
of aphoristic honesty which makes him easily first among the rural

In no sense, of course, does he assume the cosmopolitan and
international attitude which most of the naturalists assume:
"Provincialism," he curtly says, "is the best thing in the world." Nor
is he in any of the casual senses a radical: "In everything in which man
is interested, the world knows what is best for him.... Millions of men
have lived millions of years, and tried everything." Neither has he any
patience with speculation for its own sake: "There are no mysteries.
Where does the wind come from? It doesn't matter: we know the habits of
wind after it arrives." As to politics: "The people are always worsted
in an election." As to altruism: "The long and the short of it is,
whoever catches the fool first is entitled to shear him." As to love:
"We cannot permit love to run riot; we must build fences around it, as
we do around pigs." As to money: "In theory, it is not respectable to be
rich. In fact, poverty is a disgrace." As to literature: "Poets are
prophets whose prophesying never comes true." As to prudence: "Trying to
live a spiritual life in a material world is the greatest folly I know
anything about." As to persistent hopefulness: "Pessimism is always
nearer the truth than optimism."

When the author of such aphorisms undertook to write another anthology
about another town he naturally avoided the mystical elevation of Spoon
River as well as its verse; he used the irony of a disillusioned man and
the directness of a bullet. His scheme was not to assemble epitaphs for
the dead of the village but to tell crisp anecdotes of the living. He
had no iniquities in the human order to assail, since he believes that
the order is just and that it rarely hurts any one who does not deserve
to be hurt by reason of some avoidable imbecility. He made no specialty
of scandal; he did not inquire curiously into the byways of sex; he let
pathology alone. He appears in the book to be--as he is in the flesh--a
wise old man letting his memory run through the town and recalling bits
of decent, illuminating gossip. He is willing to tell a fantastic yarn
with a dry face or to tuck a tragedy in a sentence; to repeat some
village legend in his own low tones or to puncture some village bubble
with a cynical inquiry.

Yet for all his acceptance and tolerance of the village he is far from
helping to continue the sentimental traditions concerning it. The common
sense which he considers the basis of all philosophy--"If it isn't
common sense, it isn't philosophy"--he has the gift of expounding in a
language which is piercingly individual. It strips his village of
trivial local color and reduces it to the simplest terms--making it out
a more or less fortuitous congregation of human beings of whom some work
and some play, some behave themselves and some do not, some consequently
prosper and some fail, some are happy and some are miserable. His
village is not dainty, like a poem, for the reason that he believes no
village ever was; at least he has never seen one like that.
Downrightness like his is death to mere pretty notions about tribes and
towns quite as truly as are the positive indictments brought against
them by Mr. Masters and Mr. Anderson. If Mr. Howe is less vivid than
those two, because he distrusts passion and poetry, he is also quieter
and surer. "I am not an Agnostic; I _know_.... I have lived a long time,
and my real problems have always been simple."

_Sinclair Lewis_

_Spoon River Anthology_ was a collection of poems, _Winesburg, Ohio_ was
a collection of short stories, _The Anthology of Another Town_ was a
collection of anecdotes. It remained for a novel in the customary form,
Sinclair Lewis's _Main Street_, to bring to hundreds of thousands the
protest against the village which these books brought to thousands.

Mr. Lewis, like Mr. Masters, clearly has revenges to take upon the
narrow community in which he grew up, nourished, no doubt, on the
complacency native to such neighborhoods and yet increasingly resentful.
Less poetical than his predecessor, the younger novelist went further in
both his specifications and his generalizations. Instead of brooding
closely, ironically, profoundly, under the black wings of the thought of
death, Mr. Lewis satisfies himself with a slashing portrait of Gopher
Prairie done to the life with the fingers of ridicule. He has
photographic gifts of accuracy; he has all the arts of mimicry; he has a
tireless gusto in his pursuit of the tedious commonplace. Each item of
his evidence is convincing, and the accumulation is irresistible. No
other American small town has been drawn with such exactness of detail
in any other American novel. Various elements of scandal crop out here

Book of the day: