Full Text Archive logoFull Text Archive — Books, poems, drama…

Masters of the English Novel by Richard Burton

Part 5 out of 5

Adobe PDF icon
Download this document as a .pdf
File size: 0.5 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.

Fenimore Cooper is not likely to be exaggerated; it is quite
independent of the question of his present hold upon mature
readers, his faults of technique and the truth of his pictures.
To have grasped such an opportunity and so to have used it as to
become a great man-of-letters at a time when literature was more
a private employ than the interest of the general--surely it
indicates genuine personality, and has the mark of creative
power. To which we may add, that Cooper is still vital in his
appeal, as the statistics of our public libraries show.

Moreover, incorrigible romancer that he was, he is a man of the
nineteenth century, as was Irving, in the way he instinctively
chose near-at-hand native material: he knew the Mohawk Valley by
long residence; he knew the Indian and the trapper there; and he
depicted these types in a setting that was to him the most
familiar thing in the world. In fact, we have in him an
illustration of the modern writer who knows he must found his
message firmly upon reality. For both Leather-stocking and
Chingachgook are true in the broad sense, albeit the white
trapper's dialect may be uncertain and the red man exhibit a
dignity that seems Roman rather than aboriginal. The Daniel
Boone of history must have had, we feel, the nobler qualities of
Bumpo; how otherwise did he do what it was his destiny to do? In
the same way, the Indian of Cooper is the red man in his
pristine home before the day of fire-water and Agency methods.
It may be that what to us to-day seems a too glorified picture
is nearer the fact than we are in a position easily to realize.
Cooper worked in the older method of primary colors, of vivid,
even violent contrasts: his was not the school of subtleties.
His women, for example, strike us as somewhat mechanical; there
is a sameness about them that means the failure to
differentiate: the Ibsenian psychology of the sex was still to
come. But this does not alter the obvious excellencies of the
work. Cooper carried his romanticism in presenting the heroic
aspects of the life he knew best into other fields where he
walked with hardly less success: the revolutionary story
illustrated by "The Spy," and the sea-tale of which a fine
example is "The Pilot." He had a sure instinct for those
elements of fiction which make for romance, and the change of
time and place affects him only in so far as it affects his
familiarity with his materials. His experience in the United
States Navy gave him a sure hand in the sea novels: and in a
book like "The Spy" he was near enough to the scenes and
characters to be studies practically contemporary. He had the
born romanticist's natural affection for the appeal of the past
and the stock elements can be counted upon in all his best
fiction: salient personalities, the march of events, exciting
situations, and ever that arch-romantic lure, the one trick up
the sleeve to pique anticipation. Hence, in spite of
descriptions that seem over-long, a heavy-footed manner that
lacks suppleness and variety, and undeniable carelessness of
construction, he is still loved of the young and seen to be a
natural raconteur, an improviser of the Dumas-Scott lineage and,
even tested by the later tests, a noble writer of romance, a man
whom Balzac and Goethe read with admiration: unquestionably
influential outside his own land in that romantic mood of
expression which, during the first half of the nineteenth
century, was so widespread and fruitful.

III

It is the plainer with every year that Poe's contribution to
American fiction, and indeed to that of the nineteenth century,
ignoring national boundaries, stands by itself. Whatever his
sources--and no writer appears to derive less from the past--he
practically created on native soil the tale of fantasy,
sensational plot, and morbid impressionism. His cold aloofness,
his lack of spiritual import, unfitted him perhaps for the
broader work of the novelist who would present humanity in its
three dimensions with the light and shade belonging to Life
itself. Confining himself to the tale which he believed could be
more artistic because it was briefer and so the natural mold for
a mono-mood, he had the genius so to handle color, music and
suggestion in an atmosphere intense in its subjectivity, that
confessed masterpieces were the issue. Whether in the objective
detail of "The Murders in the Rue Morgue," with its subtle
illusion of realism, or in the nuances and delicatest tonality
of "Ligeia," he has left specimens of the different degrees of
romance which have not been surpassed, conquering in all but
that highest style of romantic writing where the romance lies in
an emphasis upon the noblest traits of mankind. He is, it is not
too much to say, well-nigh as important to the growth of modern
fiction outside the Novel form as he is to that of poetry,
though possibly less unique on his prose side. His fascination
is that of art and intellect: his material and the mastery
wherewith he handles it conjoin to make his particular brand of
magic. While some one story of Hoffman or Bulwer Lytton or
Stevenson may be preferred, no one author of our time has
produced an equal number of successes in the same key. It is
instructive to compare him with Hawthorne because of a
superficial resemblance with an underlying fundamental
distinction. One phase of the Concord romancer's art results in
stories which seem perhaps as somber, strange and morbid as
those of Poe: "Dr. Heidegger's Experiment," "Rapacinni's
Daughter," "The Birth Mark." They stand, of course, for but one
side of his power, of which "The Great Stone Face" and "The Snow
Image" are the brighter and sweeter. Thus Hawthorne's is a
broader and more diversified accomplishment in the form of the
tale. But the likeness has to do with subject-matter, not with
the spirit of the work. The gloomiest of Hawthorne's short
stories are spiritually sound and sweet: Poe's, on the contrary,
might be described as unmoral; they seem written by one
disdaining all the touchstones of life, living in a land of
eyrie where there is no moral law. He would no more than Lamb
indict his very dreams. In the case of Hawthorne there is
allegorical meaning, the lesson is never far to seek: a basis of
common spiritual responsibility is always below one's feet. And
this is quite as true of the long romances as of the tales. The
result is that there is spiritual tonic in Hawthorne's fiction,
while something almost miasmatic rises from Poe, dropping a kind
of veil between us and the salutary realities of existence. If
Poe be fully as gifted, he is, for this reason, less sanely
endowed. It may be conceded that he is not always as
shudderingly sardonic and removed from human sympathy as in "The
Cask of Amontillado" or "The Black Cat"; yet it is no
exaggeration to affirm that he is nowhere more typical, more
himself. On the contrary, in a tale like "The Birth Mark," what
were otherwise the horror and ultra-realism of it, is tempered
by and merged in the suggestion that no man shall with impunity
tamper with Nature nor set the delight of the eyes above the
treasures of the soul. The poor wife dies, because her husband
cares more to remove a slight physical defect than he does for
her health and life. So it cannot be said of the somber work in
the tale of these two sons of genius that,

"A common grayness silvers everything,"

since the gifts are so differently exercised and the artistic
product of totally dissimilar texture. Moreover, Poe is quite
incapable of the lovely naivete of "The Snow Image," or the
sun-kissed atmosphere of the wonder-book. Humor, except in the
satiric vein, is hardly more germane to the genius of Hawthorne
than to that of Poe; its occasional exercise is seldom if ever
happy.

Although most literary comparisons are futile because of the
disparateness of the things compared, the present one seems
legitimate in the cases of Poe and Hawthorne, superficially so
alike in their short-story work.

IV

In the romances in which he is, by common consent, our greatest
practitioner, to be placed first indeed of all who have written
fiction of whatever kind on American soil, Hawthorne never
forsakes--subtle, spiritual, elusive, even intangible as he may
seem--the firm underfooting of mother earth. His themes are
richly human, his psychologic truth (the most modern note of
realism) unerring in its accuracy and insight. As part of his
romantic endowment, he prefers to place plot and personages in
the dim backward of Time, gaining thus in perspective and
ampleness of atmosphere. He has told us as much in the preface
to "The House of The Seven Gables," that wonderful study in
subdued tone-colors. That pronunciamento of a great artist (from
which in an earlier chapter quotation has been made) should not
be overlooked by one who essays to get a hint of his secret. He
is always exclusively engaged with questions of conscience and
character; like George Meredith, his only interest is in soul-growth.
This is as true in the "Marble Faun" with its thought of
the value of sin in the spiritual life, or in "The Blithedale
Romance," wherein poor Zenobia learns how infinitely hard it is
for a woman to oppose the laws of society, as it is in the more
obvious lesson of "The Scarlet Letter." In this respect the four
romances are all of a piece: they testify to their spiritual
parentage. "The Scarlet Letter," if the greatest, is only so for
the reason that the theme is deepest, most fundamental, and the
by-gone New England setting most sympathetic to the author's
loving interest. Plainly an allegory, it yet escapes the danger
of becoming therefore poor fiction, by being first of all a
study of veritable men and women, not lay-figures to carry out
an argument. The eyes of the imagination can always see Esther
Prynne and Dimmesdale, honest but weak man of God, the evil
Chillingworth and little Pearl who is all child, unearthly
though she be, a symbol at once of lost innocence and a hope of
renewed purity. No pale abstractions these; no folk in fiction
are more believed in: they are of our own kindred with whom we
suffer or fondly rejoice. In a story so metaphysical as "The
House of The Seven Gables," full justice to which has hardly
been done (it was Hawthorne's favorite), while the background
offered by the historic old mansion is of intention low-toned
and dim, there is no obscurity, though plenty of innuendo and
suggestion. The romance is a noble specimen of that use of the
vague which never falls into the confusion of indeterminate
ideas. The theme is startlingly clear: a sin is shown working
through generations and only to find expiation in the fresh
health of the younger descendants: life built on a lie must
totter to its fall. And the shell of all this spiritual
seething--the gabled Salem house--may at last be purified and
renovated for a posterity which, because it is not paralyzed by
the dark past, can also start anew with hope and health, while
every room of the old home is swept through and cleansed by the
wholesome winds of heaven.

Forgetting for a moment the immense spiritual meaning of this
noble quartet of romances, and regarding them as works of art in
the straiter sense, they are felt to be practically blameless
examples of the principle of adapting means to a desired end. As
befits the nature of the themes, the movement in each case is
slow, pregnant with significance, cumulative in effect, the
tempo of each in exquisite accord with the particular motive:
compared with "The Scarlet Letter," "The House of The Seven
Gables" moves somewhat more quickly, a slight increase to suit
the action: it is swiftest of all in "The Blithedale Romance,"
with its greater objectivity of action and interest, its more
mundane air: while there is a cunning unevenness in the two
parts of "The Marble Faun," as is right for a romance which
first presents a tragic situation (as external climax) and then
shows in retarded progress that inward drama of the soul more
momentous than any outer scene or situation can possibly be.
After Donatello's deed of death, because what follows is
psychologically the most important part of the book, the speed
slackens accordingly. Quiet, too, and unsensational as Hawthorne
seems, he possessed a marked dramatic power. His denouements are
overwhelming in grip and scenic value: the stage effect of the
scaffold scene in "The Scarlet Letter," the murder scene in the
"Marble Faun," the tragic close of Zenobia's career in "The
Blithedale Romance," such scenes are never arbitrary and
detached; they are tonal, led up to by all that goes before. The
remark applies equally to that awful picture in "The House of
The Seven Gables," where the Judge sits dead in his chair and
the minutes are ticked off by a seemingly sentient clock. An
element in this tonality is naturally Hawthorne's style: it is
the best illustration American literature affords of excellence
of pattern in contrast with the "purple patch" manner of writing
so popular in modern diction.

Congruity, the subjection of the parts to the whole, and to the
end in view--the doctrine of key--Hawthorne illustrates all
this. If we do not mark passages and delectate over phrases, we
receive an exquisite sense of harmony--and harmony is the last
word of style. It is this power which helps to make him a great
man-of-letters, as well as a master of romance. One can imagine
him neither making haste to furnish "copy" nor pausing by the
way for ornament's sake. He knew that the only proper decoration
was an integral efflorescence of structure. He looked beyond to
the fabric's design: a man decently poor in this world's gear,
he was more concerned with good work than with gain. Of such are
art's kingdom of heaven.

Are there flaws in the weaving? They are small indeed. His
didacticism is more in evidence in the tales than in the
romances, where the fuller body allows the writer to be more
objective: still, judged by present-day standards, there are
times when he is too obviously the preacher to please modern
taste. In "The Great Stone Face," for instance, it were better,
one feels, if the moral had been more veiled, more subtly
implied. As to this, it is well to remember that criticism
changes its canons with the years and that Hawthorne simply
adapted himself (unconsciously, as a spokesman of his day) to
contemporaneous standards. His audience was less averse from the
principle that the artist should on no account usurp the
pulpit's function. If the artist-preacher had a golden mouth, it
was enough. This has perhaps always been the attitude of the
mass of mankind.

A defect less easy to condone is this author's attempts at
humor. They are for the most part lumbering and forced: you feel
the effort. Hawthorne lacked the easy manipulation of this gift
and his instinct served him aright when he avoided it, as most
often he did. A few of the short stories are conceived in the
vein of burlesque, and such it is a kindness not to name. They
give pain to any who love and revere so mighty a spirit. In the
occasional use of humor in the romances, too, he does not always
escape just condemnation: as where Judge Pincheon is described
taking a walk on a snowy morning down the village street, his
visage wreathed in such spacious smiles that the snow on either
side of his progress melts before the rays.

For some the style of Hawthorne may now be felt to possess a
certain artificiality: the price paid for that effect of
stateliness demanded by the theme and suggestive also of the
fact that the words were written over half a century ago. In
these days of photographic realism of word and idiom, our
conception of what is fit in diction has suffered a sea-change.
Our ear is adjusted to another tune. Admirable as have been the
gains in broadening the native resources of speech by the
introduction of old English elements, the eighteenth century and
the early years of the nineteenth can still teach us, and it is
not beyond credence that the eventual modern ideal of speech may
react to an equilibrium of mingled native and foreign-fetched
words. In such an event a writer like Hawthorne will be
confirmed in his mastery.

Remarkable, indeed, and latest in time has been the romantic
reaction from the extremes of realistic presentation: it has
given the United States, even as it has England, some sterling
fiction. This we can see, though it is a phenomenon too recent
to offer clear deductions as yet. What appears to be the main
difference between it and the romantic inheritance from Scott
and Hawthorne? One, if not the chief divergence, would seem to
be the inevitable degeneration which comes from haste,
mercantile pressure, imitation and lack of commanding authority.
There is plenty of technique, comparatively little personality.
Yet it may be unfair to the present to make the comparison, for
the incompetents buzz in our ears, while time has mercifully
stilled the bogus romances of G.P.R. James, et id omne genus.

But allowing for all distortion of time, a creative figure like
that of Hawthorne still towers, serene and alone, above the
little troublings of later days, and like his own Stone Face,
reflects the sun and the storm, bespeaking the greater things of
the human spirit.

THE END

Book of the day: