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Entire PG Edition of The Works of William Dean Howells by William Dean Howells

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upon them, and study that subtle effect for good and for evil which young
people are always receiving from the fiction they read; but this its not
the time or place for the inquiry, and I only wish to own that so far as
I understand it, the chief part of my ethical experience has been from
novels. The life and character I have found portrayed there have
appealed always to the consciousness of right and wrong implanted in me;
and from no one has this appeal been stronger than from George Eliot.
Her influence continued through many years, and I can question it now
only in the undue burden she seems to throw upon the individual, and her
failure to account largely enough for motive from the social environment.
There her work seems to me unphilosophical.

It shares whatever error there is in its perspective with that of
Hawthorne, whose 'Marble Faun' was a new book at the same time that 'Adam
Bede' was new, and whose books now came into my life and gave it their
tinge. He was always dealing with the problem of evil, too, and I found
a more potent charm in his more artistic handling of it than I found in
George Eliot. Of course, I then preferred the region of pure romance
where he liked to place his action; but I did not find his instances the
less veritable because they shone out in

"The light that never was on sea or land."

I read the 'Marble Faun' first, and then the 'Scarlet Letter,' and then
the 'House of Seven Gables,' and then the 'Blithedale Romance;' but I
always liked best the last, which is more nearly a novel, and more
realistic than the others. They all moved me with a sort of effect such
as I had not felt before. They veers so far from time and place that,
although most of them related to our country and epoch, I could not
imagine anything approximate from them; and Hawthorne himself seemed a
remote and impalpable agency, rather than a person whom one might
actually meet, as not long afterward happened with me. I did not hold
the sort of fancied converse with him that I held with ether authors,
and I cannot pretend that I had the affection for him that attracted me
to them. But he held me by his potent spell, and for a time he dominated
me as completely as any author I have read. More truly than any other
American author he has been a passion with me, and lately I heard with a
kind of pang a young man saying that he did not believe I should find the
'Scarlet Letter' bear reading now. I did not assent to the possibility,
but the notion gave me a shiver of dismay. I thought how much that book
had been to me, how much all of Hawthorne's books had been, and to have
parted with my faith in their perfection would have been something I
would not willingly have risked doing.

Of course there is always something fatally weak in the scheme of the
pure romance, which, after the color of the contemporary mood dies out of
it, leaves it in danger of tumbling into the dust of allegory; and
perhaps this inherent weakness was what that bold critic felt in the
'Scarlet Letter.' But none of Hawthorne's fables are without a profound
and distant reach into the recesses of nature and of being. He came back
from his researches with no solution of the question, with no message,
indeed, but the awful warning, "Be true, be true," which is the burden of
the Scarlet Letter; yet in all his books there is the hue of thoughts
that we think only in the presence of the mysteries of life and death.
It is not his fault that this is not intelligence, that it knots the brow
in sorer doubt rather than shapes the lips to utterance of the things
that can never be said. Some of his shorter stories I have found thin
and cold to my later reading, and I have never cared much for the 'House
of Seven Gables,' but the other day I was reading the 'Blithedale
Romance' again, and I found it as potent, as significant, as sadly and
strangely true as when it first enthralled my soul.

In those days when I tried to kindle my heart at the cold altar of
Goethe, I did read a great deal of his prose and somewhat of his poetry,
but it was to be ten years yet before I should go faithfully through with
his Faust and come to know its power. For the present, I read 'Wilhelm
Meister' and the 'Wahlverwandschaften,' and worshipped him much at
second-hand through Heine. In the mean time I invested such Germans as
I met with the halo of their national poetry, and there was one lady of
whom I heard with awe that she had once known my Heine. When I came to
meet her, over a glass of the mild egg-nog which she served at her house
on Sunday nights, and she told me about Heine, and how he looked, and
some few things he said, I suffered an indescribable disappointment; and
if I could have been frank with myself I should have owned to a fear that
it might have been something like that, if I had myself met the poet in
the flesh, and tried to hold the intimate converse with him that I held
in the spirit. But I shut my heart to all such misgivings and went on
reading him much more than I read any other German author. I went on
writing him too, just as I went on reading and writing Tennyson. Heine
was always a personal interest with me, and every word of his made me
long to have had him say it to me, and tell me why he said it. In a poet
of alien race and language and religion I found a greater sympathy than I
have experienced with any other. Perhaps the Jews are still the chosen
people, but now they bear the message of humanity, while once they bore
the message of divinity. I knew the ugliness of Heine's nature: his
revengefulness, and malice, and cruelty, and treachery, and uncleanness;
and yet he was supremely charming among the poets I have read. The
tenderness I still feel for him is not a reasoned love, I must own; but,
as I am always asking, when was love ever reasoned?

I had a room-mate that winter in Columbus who was already a contributor
to the Atlantic Monthly, and who read Browning as devotedly as I read
Heine. I will not say that he wrote him as constantly, but if that had
been so, I should not have cared. What I could not endure without pangs
of secret jealousy was that he should like Heine, too, and should read
him, though it was but an arm's-length in an English version. He had
found the origins of those tricks and turns of Heine's in 'Tristram
Shandy' and the 'Sentimental Journey;' and this galled me, as if he had
shown that some mistress of my soul had studied her graces from another
girl, and that it was not all her own hair that she wore. I hid my
rancor as well as I could, and took what revenge lay in my power by
insinuating that he might have a very different view if he read Heine in
the original. I also made haste to try my own fate with the Atlantic,
and I sent off to Mr. Lowell that poem which he kept so long in order to
make sure that Heine had not written it, as well as authorized it.


This was the winter when my friend Piatt and I made our first literary
venture together in those 'Poems of Two Friends;' which hardly passed the
circle of our amity; and it was altogether a time of high literary
exaltation with me. I walked the streets of the friendly little city by
day and by night with my head so full of rhymes and poetic phrases that
it seemed as if their buzzing might have been heard several yards away;
and I do not yet see quite how I contrived to keep their music out of my
newspaper paragraphs. Out of the newspaper I could not keep it, and from
time to time I broke into verse in its columns, to the great amusement of
the leading editor, who knew me for a young man with a very sharp tooth
for such self-betrayals in others. He wanted to print a burlesque review
he wrote of the 'Poems of Two Friends' in our paper, but I would not
suffer it. I must allow that it was very, funny, and that he was always
a generous friend, whose wounds would have been as faithful as any that
could have been dealt me then. He did not indeed care much for any
poetry but that of Shakespeare and the 'Ingoldsby Legends;' and when one
morning a State Senator came into the office with a volume of Tennyson,
and began to read,

"The poet in a golden clime was born,
With golden stars above;
Dowered with the hate of hate, the scorn of scorn
The love of love,"

he hitched his chair about, and started in on his leader for the day.

He might have been more patient if he had known that this State Senator
was to be President Garfield. But who could know anything of the
tragical history that was so soon to follow that winter of 1859-60?
Not I; at least I listened rapt by the poet and the reader, and it seemed
to me as if the making and the reading of poetry were to go on forever,
and that was to be all there was of it. To be sure I had my hard little
journalistic misgivings that it was not quite the thing for a State
Senator to come round reading Tennyson at ten o'clock in the morning, and
I dare say I felt myself superior in my point of view, though I could not
resist the charm of the verse. I myself did not bring Tennyson to the
office at that time. I brought Thackeray, and I remember that one day
when I had read half an hour or so in the 'Book of Snobs,' the leading
editor said frankly, Well, now, he guessed we had had enough of that.
He apologized afterwards as if he were to blame, and not I, but I dare
say I was a nuisance with my different literary passions, and must have
made many of my acquaintances very tired of my favorite authors. I had
some consciousness of the fact, but I could not help it.

I ought not to omit from the list of these favorites an author who was
then beginning to have his greatest vogue, and who somehow just missed of
being a very great one. We were all reading his jaunty, nervy, knowing
books, and some of us were questioning whether we ought not to set him
above Thackeray and Dickens and George Eliot, 'tulli quanti', so great
was the effect that Charles Reade had with our generation. He was a man
who stood at the parting of the ways between realism and romanticism, and
if he had been somewhat more of a man he might have been the master of a
great school of English realism; but, as it was, he remained content to
use the materials of realism and produce the effect of romanticism. He
saw that life itself infinitely outvalued anything that could be feigned
about it, but its richness seemed to corrupt him, and he had not the
clear, ethical conscience which forced George Eliot to be realistic when
probably her artistic prepossessions were romantic.

As yet, however, there was no reasoning of the matter, and Charles Reade
was writing books of tremendous adventure and exaggerated character,
which he prided himself on deriving from the facts of the world around
him. He was intoxicated with the discovery he had made that the truth
was beyond invention, but he did not know what to do with the truth in
art after he had found it in life, and to this day the English mostly do
not. We young people were easily taken with his glittering error, and we
read him with much the same fury, that he wrote. 'Never Too Late to
Mend;' 'Love Me Little, Love Me Long;' 'Christie Johnstone;' 'Peg
Woffington;' and then, later, 'Hard Cash,' 'The Cloister and the Hearth,'
'Foul Play,' 'Put Yourself in His Place'--how much they all meant once,
or seemed to mean!

The first of them, and the other poems and fictions I was reading, meant
more to me than the rumors of war that were then filling the air, and
that so soon became its awful actualities. To us who have our lives so
largely in books the material world is always the fable, and the ideal
the fact. I walked with my feet on the ground, but my head was in the
clouds, as light as any of them. I neither praise nor blame this fact;
but I feel bound to own it, for that time, and for every time in my life,
since the witchery of literature began with me.

Those two happy winters in Columbus, when I was finding opportunity and
recognition, were the heydey of life for me. There has been no time like
them since, though there have been smiling and prosperous times a plenty;
for then I was in the blossom of my youth, and what I had not I could
hope for without unreason, for I had so much of that which I had most
desired. Those times passed, and there came other times, long years of
abeyance, and waiting, and defeat, which I thought would never end, but
they passed, too.

I got my appointment of Consul to Venice, and I went home to wait for my
passport and to spend the last days, so full of civic trouble, before I
should set out for my post. If I hoped to serve my country there and
sweep the Confederate cruisers from the Adriatic, I am afraid my prime
intent was to add to her literature and to my own credit. I intended,
while keeping a sleepless eye out for privateers, to write poems.
concerning American life which should eclipse anything yet done in that
kind, and in the mean time I read voraciously and perpetually, to make
the days go swiftly which I should have been so glad to have linger. In
this month I devoured all the 'Waverley novels,' but I must have been
devouring a great many others, for Charles Reade's 'Christie Johnstone'
is associated with the last moment of the last days.

A few months ago I was at the old home, and I read that book again,
after not looking at it for more than thirty years; and I read it with
amazement at its prevailing artistic vulgarity, its prevailing aesthetic
error shot here and there with gleams of light, and of the truth that
Reade himself was always dimly groping for. The book is written
throughout on the verge of realism, with divinations and conjectures
across its border, and with lapses into the fool's paradise of
romanticism, and an apparent content with its inanity and impossibility.
But then it was brilliantly new and surprising; it seemed to be the last
word that could be said for the truth in fiction; and it had a spell that
held us like an anesthetic above the ache of parting, and the anxiety for
the years that must pass, with all their redoubled chances, before our
home circle could be made whole again. I read on, and the rest listened,
till the wheels of the old stage made themselves heard in their approach
through the absolute silence of the village street. Then we shut the
book and all went down to the gate together, and parted under the pale
sky of the October night. There was one of the home group whom I was not
to see again: the young brother who died in the blossom of his years
before I returned from my far and strange sojourn. He was too young then
to share our reading of the novel, but when I ran up to his room to bid
him good-by I found him awake, and, with aching hearts, we bade each
other good-by forever!


I ran through an Italian grammar on my way across the Atlantic, and from
my knowledge of Latin, Spanish, and French, I soon had a reading
acquaintance with the language. I had really wanted to go to Germany,
that I might carry forward my studies in German literature, and I first
applied for the consulate at Munich. The powers at Washington thought it
quite the same thing to offer me Rome; but I found that the income of the
Roman consulate would not give me a living, and I was forced to decline
it. Then the President's private secretaries, Mr. John Nicolay and Mr.
John Hay, who did not know me except as a young Westerner who had written
poems in the Atlantic Monthly, asked me how I would like Venice, and
promised that they would have the salary put up to a thousand a year,
under the new law to embarrass privateers. It was really put up to
fifteen hundred, and with this income assured me I went out to the city
whose influence changed the whole course of my literary life.

No privateers ever came, though I once had notice from Turin that the
Florida had been sighted off Ancona; and I had nearly four years of
nearly uninterrupted leisure at Venice, which I meant to employ in
reading all Italian literature, and writing a history of the republic.
The history, of course, I expected would be a long affair, and I did not
quite suppose that I could despatch the literature in any short time;
besides, I had several considerable poems on hand that occupied me a good
deal, and worked at these as well as advanced myself in Italian,
preparatory to the efforts before me.

I had already a slight general notion of Italian letters from Leigh Hunt,
and from other agreeable English Italianates; and I knew that I wanted to
read not only the four great poets, Dante, Petrarch, Ariosto, and Tasso,
but that whole group of burlesque poets, Pulci, Berni, and the rest, who,
from what I knew of them, I thought would be even more to my mind. As a
matter of fact, and in the process of time, I did read somewhat of all
these, but rather in the minor than the major way; and I soon went off
from them to the study of the modern poets, novelists, and playwrights
who interested me so much more. After my wonted fashion I read half a
dozen of these authors together, so that it would be hard to say which I
began with, but I had really a devotion to Dante, though not at that
time, or ever for the whole of Dante. During my first year in Venice I
met an ingenious priest, who had been a tutor in a patrician family, and
who was willing to lead my faltering steps through the "Inferno." This
part of the "Divine Comedy" I read with a beginner's carefulness, and
with a rapture in its beauties, which I will whisper the reader do not
appear in every line.

Again I say it is a great pity that criticism is not honest about the
masterpieces of literature, and does not confess that they are not every
moment masterly, that they are often dull and tough and dry, as is
certainly the case with Dante's. Some day, perhaps, we shall have this
way of treating literature, and then the lover of it will not feel
obliged to browbeat himself into the belief that if he is not always
enjoying himself it is his own fault. At any rate I will permit myself
the luxury of frankly saying that while I had a deep sense of the majesty
and grandeur of Dante's design, many points of its execution bored me,
and that I found the intermixture of small local fact and neighborhood
history in the fabric of his lofty creation no part of its noblest
effect. What is marvellous in it is its expression of Dante's
personality, and I can never think that his personalities enhance its
greatness as a work of art. I enjoyed them, however, and I enjoyed them
the more, as the innumerable perspectives of Italian history began to
open all about me. Then, indeed, I understood the origins if I did not
understand the aims of Dante, which there is still much dispute about
among those who profess to know them clearly. What I finally perceived
was that his poem came through him from the heart of Italian life, such
as it was in his time, and that whatever it teaches, his poem expresses
that life, in all its splendor and squalor, its beauty and deformity, its
love and its hate.

Criticism may torment this sense or that sense out of it, but at the end
of the ends the "Divine Comedy" will stand for the patriotism of
medieval Italy, as far as its ethics is concerned, and for a profound and
lofty ideal of beauty, as far as its aesthetics is concerned. This is
vague enough and slight enough, I must confess, but I must confess also
that I had not even a conception of so much when I first read the
"Inferno." I went at it very simply, and my enjoyment of it was that
sort which finds its account in the fine passages, the brilliant
episodes, the striking pictures. This was the effect with me of all the
criticism which I had hitherto read, and I am not sure yet that the
criticism which tries to be of a larger scope, and to see things "whole,"
is of any definite effect. As a matter of fact we see nothing whole,
neither life nor art. We are so made, in soul and in sense, that we can
deal only with parts, with points, with degrees; and the endeavor to
compass any entirety must involve a discomfort and a danger very
threatening to our intellectual integrity.

Or if this postulate is as untenable as all the others, still I am very
glad that I did not then lose any fact of the majesty, and beauty, and
pathos of the great certain measures for the sake of that fourth
dimension of the poem which is not yet made palpable or visible. I took
my sad heart's fill of the sad story of "Paolo and Francesca," which I
already knew in Leigh Hunt's adorable dilution, and most of the lines
read themselves into my memory, where they linger yet. I supped on the
horrors of Ugolino's fate with the strong gust of youth, which finds
every, exercise of sympathy a pleasure. My good priest sat beside me in
these rich moments, knotting in his lap the calico handkerchief of the
snuff-taker, and entering with tremulous eagerness into my joy in things
that he had often before enjoyed. No doubt he had an inexhaustible
pleasure in them apart from mine, for I have found my pleasure in them
perennial, and have not failed to taste it as often as I have read or
repeated any of the great passages of the poem to myself. This pleasure
came often from some vital phrase, or merely the inspired music of a
phrase quite apart from its meaning. I did not get then, and I have not
got since, a distinct conception of the journey through Hell, and as
often as I have tried to understand the topography of the poem I have
fatigued myself to no purpose, but I do not think the essential meaning
was lost upon me.

I dare say my priest had his notion of the general shape and purport,
the gross material body of the thing, but he did not trouble me with it,
while we sat tranced together in the presence of its soul. He seemed,
at times, so lost in the beatific vision, that he forgot my stumblings in
the philological darkness, till I appealed to him for help. Then he
would read aloud with that magnificent rhythm the Italians have in
reading their verse, and the obscured meaning would seem to shine out of
the mere music of the poem, like the color the blind feel in sound.

I do not know what has become of him, but if he is like the rest of the
strange group of my guides, philosophers, and friends in literature--the
printer, the organ-builder, the machinist, the drug-clerk, and the
bookbinder--I am afraid he is dead. In fact, I who was then I, might be
said to be dead too, so little is my past self like my present self in
anything but the "increasing purpose" which has kept me one in my love of
literature. He was a gentle and kindly man, with a life and a longing,
quite apart from his vocation, which were never lived or fulfilled.
I did not see him after he ceased to read Dante with me, and in fact I
was instructed by the suspicions of my Italian friends to be careful how
I consorted with a priest, who might very well be an Austrian spy.
I parted with him for no such picturesque reason, for I never believed
him other than the truest and faithfulest of friends, but because I was
then giving myself more entirely to work in which he could not help me.

Naturally enough this was a long poem in the terza rima of the "Divina
Commedia," and dealing with a story of our civil war in a fashion so
remote that no editor would print it. This was the first fruits and the
last of my reading of Dante, in verse, and it was not so like Dante as I
would have liked to make it; but Dante is not easy to imitate; he is too
unconscious, and too single, too bent upon saying the thing that is in
him, with whatever beauty inheres in it, to put on the graces that others
may catch.


However, this poem only shared the fate of nearly, all the others that I
wrote at this time; they came back to me with unfailing regularity from
all the magazine editors of the English-speaking world; I had no success
with any of them till I sent Mr. Lowell a paper on recent Italian comedy
for the North American Review, which he and Professor Norton had then
begun to edit. I was in the mean time printing the material of Venetian
Life and the Italian Journeys in a Boston newspaper after its rejection
by the magazines; and my literary life, almost without my willing it, had
taken the course of critical observance of books and men in their

That is to say, I was studying manners, in the elder sense of the word,
wherever I could get at them in the frank life of the people about me,
and in such literature of Italy as was then modern. In this pursuit I
made a discovery that greatly interested me, and that specialized my
inquiries. I found that the Italians had no novels which treated of
their contemporary life; that they had no modern fiction but the
historical romance. I found that if I wished to know their life from
their literature I must go to their drama, which was even then
endeavoring to give their, stage a faithful picture of their
civilization. There was even then in the new circumstance of a people
just liberated from every variety of intellectual repression and
political oppression, a group of dramatic authors, whose plays were not
only delightful to see but delightful to read, working in the good
tradition of one of the greatest realists who has ever lived, and
producing a drama of vital strength and charm. One of them, whom I by no
means thought the best, has given us a play, known to all the world,
which I am almost ready to think with Zola is the greatest play of modern
times; or if it is not so, I should be puzzled to name the modern drama
that surpasses "La Morte Civile" of Paolo Giacometti. I learned to know
all the dramatists pretty well, in the whole range of their work, on the
stage and in the closet, and I learned to know still better, and to love
supremely, the fine, amiable genius whom, as one of them said, they did
not so much imitate as learn from to imitate nature.

This was Carlo Goldoni, one of the first of the realists, but antedating
conscious realism so long as to have been born at Venice early in the
eighteenth century, and to have come to his hand-to-hand fight with the
romanticism of his day almost before that century had reached its noon.
In the early sixties of our own century I was no more conscious of his
realism than he was himself a hundred years before; but I had eyes in my
head, and I saw that what he had seen in Venice so long before was so
true that it was the very life of Venice in my own day; and because I
have loved the truth in art above all other things, I fell instantly and
lastingly in love with Carlo Goldoni. I was reading his memoirs, and
learning to know his sweet, honest, simple nature while I was learning to
know his work, and I wish that every one who reads his plays would read
his life as well; one must know him before one can fully know them. I
believe, in fact, that his autobiography came into my hands first. But,
at any rate, both are associated with the fervors and languors of that
first summer in Venice, so that I cannot now take up a book of Goldoni's
without a renewed sense of that sunlight and moonlight, and of the sounds
and silences of a city that is at once the stillest and shrillest in the

Perhaps because I never found his work of great ethical or aesthetical
proportions, but recognized that it pretended to be good only within its
strict limitations, I recur to it now without that painful feeling of a
diminished grandeur in it, which attends us so often when we go back to
something that once greatly pleased us. It seemed to me at the time that
I must have read all his comedies in Venice, but I kept reading new ones
after I came home, and still I can take a volume of his from the shelf,
and when thirty years are past, find a play or two that I missed before.
Their number is very great, but perhaps those that I fancy I have not
read, I have really read once or more and forgotten. That might very
easily be, for there is seldom anything more poignant in any one of them
than there is in the average course of things. The plays are light and
amusing transcripts from life, for the most part, and where at times they
deepen into powerful situations, or express strong emotions, they do so
with persons so little different from the average of our acquaintance
that we do not remember just who the persons are.

There is no doubt but the kindly playwright had his conscience, and meant
to make people think as well as laugh. I know of none of his plays that
is of wrong effect, or that violates the instincts of purity, or insults
common sense with the romantic pretence that wrong will be right if you
will only paint it rose-color. He is at some obvious pains to "punish
vice and reward virtue," but I do not mean that easy morality when I
praise his; I mean the more difficult sort that recognizes in each man's
soul the arbiter not of his fate surely, but surely of his peace. He
never makes a fool of the spectator by feigning that passion is a reason
or justification, or that suffering of one kind can atone for wrong of
another. That was left for the romanticists of our own century to
discover; even the romanticists whom Goldoni drove from the stage, were
of that simpler eighteenth-century sort who had not yet liberated the
individual from society, but held him accountable in the old way. As for
Goldoni himself, he apparently never dreams of transgression; he is of
rather an explicit conventionality in most things, and he deals with
society as something finally settled. How artfully he deals with it,
how decently, how wholesomely, those who know Venetian society of the
eighteenth century historically, will perceive when they recall the
adequate impression he gives of it without offence in character or
language or situation. This is the perpetual miracle of his comedy,
that it says so much to experience and worldly wisdom, and so little to
inexperience and worldly innocence. No doubt the Serenest Republic was
very strict with the theatre, and suffered it to hold the mirror up to
nature only when nature was behaving well, or at least behaving as if
young people were present. Yet the Italians are rather plain-spoken, and
they recognize facts which our company manners at least do not admit the
existence of. I should say that Goldoni was almost English, almost
American, indeed, in his observance of the proprieties, and I like this
in him; though the proprieties are not virtues, they are very good
things, and at least are better than the improprieties.

This, however, I must own, had not a great deal to do with my liking him
so much, and I should be puzzled to account for my passion, as much in
his case as in most others. If there was any reason for it, perhaps it
was that he had the power of taking me out of my life, and putting me
into the lives of others, whom I felt to be human beings as much as
myself. To make one live in others, this is the highest effect of
religion as well as of art, and possibly it will be the highest bliss we
shall ever know. I do not pretend that my translation was through my
unselfishness; it was distinctly through that selfishness which perceives
that self is misery; and I may as well confess here that I do not regard
the artistic ecstasy as in any sort noble. It is not noble to love the
beautiful, or to live for it, or by it; and it may even not be refining.
I would not have any reader of mine, looking forward to some aesthetic
career, suppose that this love is any merit in itself; it may be the
grossest egotism. If you cannot look beyond the end you aim at, and seek
the good which is not your own, all your sacrifice is to yourself and not
of yourself, and you might as well be going into business. In itself and
for itself it is no more honorable to win fame than to make money, and
the wish to do the one is no more elevating than the wish to do the

But in the days I write of I had no conception of this, and I am sure
that my blindness to so plain a fact kept me even from seeking and
knowing the highest beauty in the things I worshipped. I believe that if
I had been sensible of it I should hays read much more of such humane
Italian poets and novelists as Manzoni and D'Azeglio, whom I perceived to
be delightful, without dreaming of them in the length and breadth of
their goodness. Now and then its extent flashed upon me, but the glimpse
was lost to my retroverted vision almost as soon as won. It is only in
thinking back to there that I can realize how much they might always have
meant to me. They were both living in my time in Italy, and they were
two men whom I should now like very much to have seen, if I could have
done so without that futility which seems to attend every effort to pay
one's duty to such men.

The love of country in all the Italian poets and romancers of the long
period of the national resurrection ennobled their art in a measure which
criticism has not yet taken account of. I conceived of its effect then,
but I conceived of it as a misfortune, a fatality; now I am by no means
sure that it was so; hereafter the creation of beauty, as we call it, for
beauty's sake, may be considered something monstrous. There is forever a
poignant meaning in life beyond what mere living involves, and why should
not there be this reference in art to the ends beyond art?
The situation, the long patience, the hope against hope, dignified and
beautified the nature of the Italian writers of that day, and evoked from
them a quality which I was too little trained in their school to
appreciate. But in a sort I did feel it, I did know it in them all, so
far as I knew any of them, and in the tragedies of Manzoni, and in the
romances of D'Azeglio, and yet more in the simple and modest records of
D'Azeglio's life published after his death, I profited by it, and
unconsciously prepared myself for that point of view whence all the arts
appear one with all the uses, and there is nothing beautiful that is

I am very glad of that experience of Italian literature, which I look
back upon as altogether wholesome and sanative, after my excesses of
Heine. No doubt it was all a minor affair as compared with equal
knowledge of French literature, and so far it was a loss of time. It is
idle to dispute the general positions of criticism, and there is no
useful gainsaying its judgment that French literature is a major
literature and Italian a minor literature in this century; but whether
this verdict will stand for all time, there may be a reasonable doubt.
Criterions may change, and hereafter people may look at the whole affair
so differently that a literature which went to the making of a people
will not be accounted a minor literature, but will take its place with
the great literary movements.

I do not insist upon this possibility, and I am far from defending myself
for liking the comedies of Goldoni better than the comedies of Moliere,
upon purely aesthetic grounds, where there is no question as to the
artistic quality. Perhaps it is because I came to Moliere's comedies
later, and with my taste formed for those of Goldoni; but again, it is
here a matter of affection; I find Goldoni for me more sympathetic, and
because he is more sympathetic I cannot do otherwise than find him more
natural, more true. I will allow that this is vulnerable, and as I say,
I do not defend it. Moliere has a place in literature infinitely loftier
than Goldoni's; and he has supplied types, characters, phrases, to the
currency of thought, and Goldoni has supplied none. It is, therefore,
without reason which I can allege that I enjoy Goldoni more. I am
perfectly willing to be rated low for my preference, and yet I think that
if it had been Goldoni's luck to have had the great age of a mighty
monarchy for his scene, instead of the decline of an outworn republic,
his place in literature might have been different.


I have always had a great love for the absolutely unreal, the purely
fanciful in all the arts, as well as of the absolutely real; I like the
one on a far lower plane than the other, but it delights me, as a
pantomime at a theatre does, or a comic opera, which has its being wholly
outside the realm of the probabilities. When I once transport myself to
this sphere I have no longer any care for them, and if I could I would
not exact of them an allegiance which has no concern with them. For this
reason I have always vastly enjoyed the artificialities of pastoral
poetry; and in Venice I read with a pleasure few serious poems have given
me the "Pastor Fido" of Guarini. I came later but not with fainter zest
to the "Aminta" of Tasso, without which, perhaps, the "Pastor Fido" would
not have been, and I revelled in the pretty impossibilities of both these
charming effects of the liberated imagination.

I do not the least condemn that sort of thing; one does not live by
sweets, unless one is willing to spoil one's digestion; but one may now
and then indulge one's self without harm, and a sugar-plum or two after
dinner may even be of advantage. What I object to is the romantic thing
which asks to be accepted with all its fantasticality on the ground of
reality; that seems to me hopelessly bad. But I have been able to dwell
in their charming out-land or no-land with the shepherds and
shepherdesses and nymphs, satyrs, and fauns, of Tasso and Guarini, and I
take the finest pleasure in their company, their Dresden china loves and
sorrows, their airy raptures, their painless throes, their polite
anguish, their tears not the least salt, but flowing as sweet as the
purling streams of their enamelled meadows. I wish there were more of
that sort of writing; I should like very much to read it.

The greater part of my reading in Venice, when I began to find that I
could not help writing about the place, was in books relating to its life
and history, which I made use of rather than found pleasure in. My
studies in Italian literature were full of the most charming interest,
and if I had to read a good many books for conscience' sake, there were a
good many others I read for their own sake. They were chiefly poetry;
and after the first essays in which I tasted the classic poets, they were
chiefly the books of the modern poets.

For the present I went no farther in German literature, and I recurred to
it in later years only for deeper and fuller knowledge of Heine; my
Spanish was ignored, as all first loves are when one has reached the age
of twenty-six. My English reading was almost wholly in the Tauchnitz
editions, for otherwise English books were not easily come at then and
there. George Eliot's 'Romola' was then new, and I read it again and
again with the sense of moral enlargement which the first fiction to
conceive of the true nature of evil gave all of us who were young in that
day. Tito Malema was not only a lesson, he was a revelation, and I
trembled before him as in the presence of a warning and a message from
the only veritable perdition. His life, in which so much that was good
was mixed, with so much that was bad, lighted up the whole domain of
egotism with its glare, and made one feel how near the best and the worst
were to each other, and how they sometimes touched without absolute
division in texture and color. The book was undoubtedly a favorite of
mine, and I did not see then the artistic falterings in it which were
afterwards evident to me.

There were not Romolas to read all the time, though, and I had to devolve
upon inferior authors for my fiction the greater part of the time. Of
course, I kept up with 'Our Mutual Friend,' which Dickens was then
writing, and with 'Philip,' which was to be the last of Thackeray. I was
not yet sufficiently instructed to appreciate Trollope, and I did not
read him at all.

I got hold of Kingsley, and read 'Yeast,' and I think some other novels
of his, with great relish, and without sensibility to his Charles
Readeish lapses from his art into the material of his art. But of all
the minor fiction that I read at this time none impressed me so much as
three books which had then already had their vogue, and which I knew
somewhat from reviews. They were Paul Ferroll, 'Why Paul Ferroll Killed
His Wife,' and 'Day after Day.' The first two were, of course, related
to each other, and they were all three full of unwholesome force. As to
their aesthetic merit I will not say anything, for I have not looked at
either of the books for thirty years. I fancy, however, that their
strength was rather of the tetanic than the titanic sort. They made your
sympathies go with the hero, who deliberately puts his wife to death for
the lie she told to break off his marriage with the woman he had loved,
and who then marries this tender and gentle girl, and lives in great
happiness with her till her death. Murder in the first degree is
flattered by his fate up to the point of letting him die peacefully in
Boston after these dealings of his in England; and altogether his story
could not be commended to people with a morbid taste for bloodshed.
Naturally enough the books were written by a perfectly good woman, the
wife of an English clergyman, whose friends were greatly scandalized by
them. As a sort of atonement she wrote 'Day after Day,' the story of a
dismal and joyless orphan, who dies to the sound of angelic music, faint
and farheard, filling the whole chamber. A carefuller study of the
phenomenon reveals the fact that the seraphic strains are produced by the
steam escaping from the hot-water bottles at the feet of the invalid.

As usual, I am not able fully to account for my liking of these books,
and I am so far from wishing to justify it that I think I ought rather to
excuse it. But since I was really greatly fascinated with them, and read
them with an evergrowing fascination, the only honest thing to do is to
own my subjection to them. It would be an interesting and important
question for criticism to study, that question why certain books at a.
certain time greatly dominate our fancy, and others manifestly better
have no influence with us. A curious proof of the subtlety of these Paul
Ferroll books in the appeal they made to the imagination is the fact that
I came to them fresh from 'Romolo,' and full of horror for myself in
Tito; yet I sympathized throughout with Paul Ferroll, and was glad when
he got away.


On my return to America, my literary life immediately took such form that
most of my reading was done for review. I wrote at first a good many of
the lighter criticisms in 'The Nation', at New York, and after I went to
Boston to become the assistant editor of the 'Atlantic Monthly' I wrote
the literary notices in that periodical for four or five years.

It was only when I came into full charge of the magazine that I began to
share these labors with others, and I continued them in some measure as
long as I had any relation to it. My reading for reading's sake, as I
had hitherto done it, was at an end, and I read primarily for the sake of
writing about the book in hand, and secondarily for the pleasure it might
give me. This was always considerable, and sometimes so great that I
forgot the critic in it, and read on and on for pleasure. I was master
to review this book or that as I chose, and generally I reviewed only
books I liked to read, though sometimes I felt that I ought to do a book,
and did it from a sense of duty; these perfunctory criticisms I do not
think were very useful, but I tried to make them honest.

In a long sickness, which I had shortly after I went to live in
Cambridge, a friend brought me several of the stories of Erckmann-
Chatrian, whom people were then reading much more than they are now, I
believe; and I had a great joy in them, which I have renewed since as
often as I have read one of their books. They have much the same quality
of simple and sincerely moralized realism that I found afterwards in the
work of the early Swiss realist, Jeremias Gotthelf, and very likely it
was this that captivated my judgment. As for my affections, battered and
exhausted as they ought to have been in many literary passions, they
never went out with fresher enjoyment than they did to the charming story
of 'L'Ami Fritz,' which, when I merely name it, breathes the spring sun
and air about me, and fills my senses with the beauty and sweetness of
cherry blossoms. It is one of the loveliest and kindest books that ever
was written, and my heart belongs to it still; to be sure it belongs to
several hundreds of other books in equal entirety.

It belongs to all the books of the great Norwegian Bjorstjerne Bjornson,
whose 'Arne,' and whose 'Happy Boy,' and whose 'Fisher Maiden' I read in
this same fortunate sickness. I have since read every other book of his
that I could lay hands on: 'Sinnove Solbakken,' and 'Magnhild,' and
'Captain Manzanca,' and 'Dust,' and 'In God's Ways,' and 'Sigurd,' and
plays like "The Glove" and "The Bankrupt." He has never, as some authors
have, dwindled in my sense; when I open his page, there I find him as
large, and free, and bold as ever. He is a great talent, a clear
conscience, a beautiful art. He has my love not only because he is a
poet of the most exquisite verity, but because he is a lover of men,
with a faith in them such as can move mountains of ignorance,
and dulness, and greed. He is next to Tolstoy in his willingness to give
himself for his kind; if he would rather give himself in fighting than in
suffering wrong, I do not know that his self-sacrifice is less in degree.

I confess, however, that I do not think of him as a patriot and a
socialist when I read him; he is then purely a poet, whose gift holds me
rapt above the world where I have left my troublesome and wearisome self
for the time. I do not know of any novels that a young endeavorer in
fiction could more profitably read than his for their large and simple
method, their trust of the reader's intelligence, their sympathy with
life. With him the problems are all soluble by the enlightened and
regenerate will; there is no baffling Fate, but a helping God. In
Bjornson there is nothing of Ibsen's scornful despair, nothing of his
anarchistic contempt, but his art is full of the warmth and color of a
poetic soul, with no touch of the icy cynicism which freezes you in the
other. I have felt the cold fascination of Ibsen, too, and I should be
far from denying his mighty mastery, but he has never possessed me with
the delight that Bjornson has.

In those days I read not only all the new books, but I made many forays
into the past, and came back now and then with rich spoil, though I
confess that for the most part I had my trouble for my pains; and I wish
now that I had given the time I spent on the English classics to
contemporary literature, which I have not the least hesitation in saying
I like vastly better. In fact, I believe that the preference for the
literature of the past, except in the case of the greatest masters, is
mainly the affectation of people who cannot otherwise distinguish
themselves from the herd, and who wish very much to do so.

There is much to be learned from the minor novelists and poets of the
past about people's ways of thinking and feeling, but not much that the
masters do not give you in better quality and fuller measure; and I
should say, Read the old masters and let their schools go, rather than
neglect any possible master of your own time. Above all, I would not
have any one read an old author merely that he might not be ignorant of
him; that is most beggarly, and no good can come of it. When literature
becomes a duty it ceases to be a passion, and all the schoolmastering in
the world, solemnly addressed to the conscience, cannot make the fact
otherwise. It is well to read for the sake of knowing a certain ground
if you are to make use of your knowledge in a certain way, but it would
be a mistake to suppose that this is a love of literature.


In those years at Cambridge my most notable literary experience without
doubt was the knowledge of Tourguenief's novels, which began to be
recognized in all their greatness about the middle seventies. I think
they made their way with such of our public as were able to appreciate
them before they were accepted in England; but that does not matter. It
is enough for the present purpose that 'Smoke,' and 'Lisa,' and 'On the
Eve,' and 'Dimitri Roudine,' and 'Spring Floods,' passed one after
another through my hands, and that I formed for their author one of the
profoundest literary passions of my life.

I now think that there is a finer and truer method than his, but in its
way, Tourguenief's method is as far as art can go. That is to say, his
fiction is to the last degree dramatic. The persons are sparely
described, and briefly accounted for, and then they are left to transact
their affair, whatever it is, with the least possible comment or
explanation from the author. The effect flows naturally from their
characters, and when they have done or said a thing you conjecture why as
unerringly as you would if they were people whom you knew outside of a
book. I had already conceived of the possibility of this from Bjornson,
who practises the same method, but I was still too sunken in the gross
darkness of English fiction to rise to a full consciousness of its
excellence. When I remembered the deliberate and impertinent moralizing
of Thackeray, the clumsy exegesis of George Eliot, the knowing nods and
winks of Charles Reade, the stage-carpentering and limelighting of
Dickens, even the fine and important analysis of Hawthorne, it was with a
joyful astonishment that I realized the great art of Tourguenief.

Here was a master who was apparently not trying to work out a plot, who
was not even trying to work out a character, but was standing aside from
the whole affair, and letting the characters work the plot out. The
method was revealed perfectly in 'Smoke,' but each successive book of his
that I read was a fresh proof of its truth, a revelation of its
transcendent superiority. I think now that I exaggerated its value
somewhat; but this was inevitable in the first surprise. The sane
aesthetics of the first Russian author I read, however, have seemed more
and more an essential part of the sane ethics of all the Russians I have
read. It was not only that Tourguenief had painted life truly, but that
he had painted it conscientiously.

Tourguenief was of that great race which has more than any other fully
and freely uttered human nature, without either false pride or false
shame in its nakedness. His themes were oftenest those of the French
novelist, but how far he was from handling them in the French manner and
with the French spirit! In his hands sin suffered no dramatic
punishment; it did not always show itself as unhappiness, in the personal
sense, but it was always unrest, and without the hope of peace. If the
end did not appear, the fact that it must be miserable always appeared.
Life showed itself to me in different colors after I had once read
Tourguenief; it became more serious, more awful, and with mystical
responsibilities I had not known before. My gay American horizons were
bathed in the vast melancholy of the Slav, patient, agnostic, trustful.
At the same time nature revealed herself to me through him with an
intimacy she had not hitherto shown me. There are passages in this
wonderful writer alive with a truth that seems drawn from the reader's
own knowledge; who else but Tourguenief and one's own most secret self
ever felt all the rich, sad meaning of the night air drawing in at the
open window, of the fires burning in the darkness on the distant fields?
I try in vain to give some notion of the subtle sympathy with nature
which scarcely put itself into words with him. As for the people of his
fiction, though they were of orders and civilizations so remote from my
experience, they were of the eternal human types whose origin and
potentialities every one may find in his own heart, and I felt their
verity in every touch.

I cannot describe the satisfaction his work gave me; I can only impart
some sense of it, perhaps, by saying that it was like a happiness I had
been waiting for all my life, and now that it had come, I was richly
content forever. I do not mean to say that the art of Tourguenief
surpasses the art of Bjornson; I think Bjornson is quite as fine and
true. But the Norwegian deals with simple and primitive circumstances
for the most part, and always with a small world; and the Russian has to
do with human nature inside of its conventional shells, and his scene is
often as large as Europe. Even when it is as remote as Norway, it is
still related to the great capitals by the history if not the actuality
of the characters. Most of Tourguenief's books I have read many times
over, all of them I have read more than twice. For a number of years I
read them again and again without much caring for other fiction. It was
only the other day that I read Smoke through once more, with no
diminished sense of its truth, but with somewhat less than my first
satisfaction in its art. Perhaps this was because I had reached the
point through my acquaintance with Tolstoy where I was impatient even of
the artifice that hid itself. In 'Smoke' I was now aware of an artifice
that kept out of sight, but was still always present somewhere, invisibly
operating the story.

I must not fail to own the great pleasure that I have had in some of the
stories of Auerbach. It is true that I have never cared greatly for 'On
the Heights,' which in its dealing with royalties seems too far aloof
from the ordinary human life, and which on the moral side finally fades
out into a German mistiness. But I speak of it with the imperfect
knowledge of one who was never able to read it quite through, and I have
really no right to speak of it. The book of his that pleased me most was
'Edelweiss,' which, though the story was somewhat too catastrophical,
seemed to me admirably good and true. I still think it very delicately
done, and with a deep insight; but there is something in all Auerbach's
work which in the retrospect affects me as if it dealt with pigmies.


I have always loved history, whether in the annals of peoples or in the
lives of persons, and I have at all times read it. I am not sure but I
rather prefer it to fiction, though I am aware that in looking back over
this record of my literary passions I must seem to have cared for very
little besides fiction. I read at the time I have just been speaking of,
nearly all the new poetry as it came out, and I constantly recurred to it
in its mossier sources, where it sprang from the green English ground, or
trickled from the antique urns of Italy.

I do not think that I have ever cared much for metaphysics, or to read
much in that way, but from time to time I have done something of it.

Travels, of course, I have read as part of the great human story, and
autobiography has at times appeared to me the most delightful reading in
the world; I have a taste in it that rejects nothing, though I have never
enjoyed any autobiographies so much as those of such Italians as have
reasoned of themselves.

I suppose I have not been a great reader of the drama, and I do not know
that I have ever greatly relished any plays but those of Shakespeare and
Goldoni, and two or three of Beaumont and Fletcher, and one or so of
Marlow's, and all of Ibsen's and Maeterlinck's. The taste for the old
English dramatists I believe I have never formed.

Criticism, ever since I filled myself so full of it in my boyhood, I have
not cared for, and often I have found it repulsive.

I have a fondness for books of popular science, perhaps because they too
are part of the human story.

I have read somewhat of the theology of the Swedenborgian faith I was
brought up in, but I have not read other theological works; and I do not
apologize for not liking any. The Bible itself was not much known to me
at an age when most children have been obliged to read it several times
over; the gospels were indeed familiar, and they have always been to me
the supreme human story; but the rest of the New Testament I had not read
when a man grown, and only passages of the Old Testament, like the story
of the Creation, and the story of Joseph, and the poems of Job and
Ecclesiastes, with occasional Psalms. I therefore came to the Scriptures
with a sense at once fresh and mature, and I can never be too glad that I
learned to see them under the vaster horizon and in the truer
perspectives of experience.

Again as lights on the human story I have liked to read such books of
medicine as have fallen in my way, and I seldom take up a medical
periodical without reading of all the cases it describes, and in fact
every article in it.

But I did not mean to make even this slight departure from the main
business of these papers, which is to confide my literary passions to the
reader; he probably has had a great many of his own. I think I may class
the "Ring and the Book" among them, though I have never been otherwise a
devotee of Browning. But I was still newly home from Italy, or away from
home, when that poem appeared, and whether or not it was because it took
me so with the old enchantment of that land, I gave my heart promptly to
it. Of course, there are terrible longueurs in it, and you do get tired
of the same story told over and over from the different points of view,
and yet it is such a great story, and unfolded with such a magnificent
breadth and noble fulness, that one who blames it lightly blames himself
heavily. There are certain books of it--"Caponsacchi's story,"
"Pompilia's story," and "Count Guido's story"--that I think ought to rank
with the greatest poetry ever written, and that have a direct, dramatic
expression of the fact and character, which is without rival. There is a
noble and lofty pathos in the close of Caponsacchi's statement, an
artless and manly break from his self-control throughout, that seems to
me the last possible effect in its kind; and Pompilia's story holds all
of womanhood in it, the purity, the passion, the tenderness, the
helplessness. But if I begin to praise this or any of the things I have
liked, I do not know when I should stop. Yes, as I think it over, the
"Ring and the Book" appears to me one of the great few poems whose
splendor can never suffer lasting eclipse, however it may have presently
fallen into abeyance. If it had impossibly come down to us from some
elder time, or had not been so perfectly modern in its recognition of
feeling and motives ignored by the less conscious poetry of the past, it
might be ranked with the great epics.

Of other modern poets I have read some things of William Morris, like the
"Life and Death of Jason," the "Story of Gudrun," and the "Trial of
Guinevere," with a pleasure little less than passionate, and I have
equally liked certain pieces of Dante Rossetti. I have had a high joy in
some of the great minor poems of Emerson, where the goddess moves over
Concord meadows with a gait that is Greek, and her sandalled tread
expresses a high scorn of the india-rubber boots that the American muse
so often gets about in.

The "Commemoration Ode" of Lowell has also been a source from which I
drank something of the divine ecstasy of the poet's own exalted mood, and
I would set this level with the 'Biglow Papers,' high above all his other
work, and chief of the things this age of our country shall be remembered
by. Holmes I always loved, and not for his wit alone, which is so
obvious to liking, but for those rarer and richer strains of his in which
he shows himself the lover of nature and the brother of men. The deep
spiritual insight, the celestial music, and the brooding tenderness of
Whittier have always taken me more than his fierier appeals and his civic
virtues, though I do not underrate the value of these in his verse.

My acquaintance with these modern poets, and many I do not name because
they are so many, has been continuous with their work, and my pleasure in
it not inconstant if not equal. I have spoken before of Longfellow as
one of my first passions, and I have never ceased to delight in him; but
some of the very newest and youngest of our poets have given me thrills
of happiness, for which life has become lastingly sweeter.

Long after I had thought never to read it--in fact when I was 'nel mezzo
del cammin di nostra vita'--I read Milton's "Paradise Lost," and found in
it a majestic beauty that justified to me the fame it wears, and eclipsed
the worth of those lesser poems which I had ignorantly accounted his
worthiest. In fact, it was one of the literary passions of the time I
speak of, and it shared my devotion for the novels of Tourguenief and
(shall I own it?) the romances of Cherbuliez. After all, it is best to
be honest, and if it is not best, it is at least easiest; it involves the
fewest embarrassing consequences; and if I confess the spell that the
Revenge of Joseph Noirel cast upon me for a time, perhaps I shall be able
to whisper the reader behind my hand that I have never yet read the
"AEneid" of Virgil; the "Georgics," yes; but the "AEneid," no. Some
time, however, I expect to read it and to like it immensely. That is
often the case with things that I have held aloof from indefinitely.

One fact of my experience which the reader may, find interesting is that
when I am writing steadily I have little relish for reading. I fancy,
that reading is not merely a pastime when it is apparently the merest
pastime, but that a certain measure of mind-stuff is used up in it, and
that if you are using up all the mind stuff you have, much or little, in
some other way, you do not read because you have not the mind-stuff for
it. At any rate it is in this sort only that I can account for my
failure to read a great deal during four years of the amplest quiet that
I spent in the country at Belmont, whither we removed from Cambridge.
I had promised myself that in this quiet, now that I had given up
reviewing, and wrote little or nothing in the magazine but my stories,
I should again read purely for the pleasure of it, as I had in the early
days before the critical purpose had qualified it with a bitter alloy.
But I found that not being forced to read a number of books each month,
so that I might write about them, I did not read at all, comparatively
speaking. To be sure I dawdled over a great many books that I had read
before, and a number of memoirs and biographies, but I had no intense
pleasure from reading in that time, and have no passions to record of it.
It may have been a period when no new thing happened in literature deeply
to stir one's interest; I only state the fact concerning myself, and
suggest the most plausible theory I can think of.

I wish also to note another incident, which may or may not have its
psychological value. An important event of these years was a long
sickness which kept me helpless some seven or eight weeks, when I was
forced to read in order to pass the intolerable time. But in this misery
I found that I could not read anything of a dramatic cast, whether in the
form of plays or of novels. The mere sight of the printed page, broken
up in dialogue, was anguish. Yet it was not the excitement of the
fiction that I dreaded, for I consumed great numbers of narratives of
travel, and was not in the least troubled by hairbreadth escapes, or
shipwrecks, or perils from wild beasts or deadly serpents; it was the
dramatic effect contrived by the playwright or novelist, and worked up to
in the speech of his characters that I could not bear. I found a like
impossible stress from the Sunday newspaper which a mistaken friend sent
in to me, and which with its scare-headings, and artfully wrought
sensations, had the effect of fiction, as in fact it largely was.

At the end of four years we went abroad again, and travel took away the
appetite for reading as completely as writing did. I recall nothing read
in that year in Europe which moved me, and I think I read very little,
except the local histories of the Tuscan cities which I afterwards wrote


In fact, it was not till I returned, and took up my life again in Boston,
in the old atmosphere of work, that I turned once more to books. Even
then I had to wait for the time when I undertook a critical department in
one of the magazines, before I felt the rise of the old enthusiasm for an
author. That is to say, I had to begin reading for business again before
I began reading for pleasure. One of the first great pleasures which I
had upon these terms was in the book of a contemporary Spanish author.
This was the 'Marta y Maria' of Armando Palacio Valdes, a novelist who
delights me beyond words by his friendly and abundant humor, his feeling
for character, and his subtle insight. I like every one of his books
that I have read, and I believe that I have read nearly every one that he
has written. As I mention 'Riverito, Maximina, Un Idilio de un Inferno,
La Hermana de San Sulpizio, El Cuarto Poder, Espuma,' the mere names
conjure up the scenes and events that have moved me to tears and
laughter, and filled me with a vivid sense of the life portrayed in them.
I think the 'Marta y Maria' one of the most truthful and profound
fictions I have read, and 'Maximina' one of the most pathetic, and
'La Hermana de San Sulpizio' one of the most amusing. Fortunately, these
books of Valdes's have nearly all been translated, and the reader may
test the matter in English; though it necessarily halts somewhat behind
the Spanish.

I do not know whether the Spaniards themselves rank Valdes with Galdos or
not, and I have no wish to decide upon their relative merits. They are
both present passions of mine, and I may say of the 'Dona Perfecta' of
Galdos that no book, if I except those of the greatest Russians, has
given me a keener and deeper impression; it is infinitely pathetic, and
is full of humor, which, if more caustic than that of Valdes, is not less
delicious. But I like all the books of Galdos that I have read, and
though he seems to have worked more tardily out of his romanticism than
Valdes, since be has worked finally into such realism as that of Leon
Roch, his greatness leaves nothing to be desired.

I have read one of the books of Emilia Pardo-Bazan, called 'Morrina,'
which must rank her with the great realists of her country and age; she,
too, has that humor of her race, which brings us nearer the Spanish than
any other non-Anglo-Saxon people.

A contemporary Italian, whom I like hardly less than these noble
Spaniards, is Giovanni Verga, who wrote 'I Malavoglia,' or, as we call it
in English, 'The House by the Medlar Tree': a story of infinite beauty,
tenderness and truth. As I have said before, I think with Zola that
Giacometti, the Italian author of "La Morte Civile," has written almost
the greatest play, all round, of modern times.

But what shall I say of Zola himself, and my admiration of his epic
greatness? About his material there is no disputing among people of our
Puritanic tradition. It is simply abhorrent, but when you have once
granted him his material for his own use, it is idle and foolish to deny
his power. Every literary theory of mine was contrary to him when I took
up 'L'Assommoir,' though unconsciously I had always been as much of a
realist as I could, but the book possessed me with the same fascination
that I felt the other day in reading his 'L'Argent.' The critics know
now that Zola is not the realist he used to fancy himself, and he is full
of the best qualities of the romanticism he has hated so much; but for
what he is, there is but one novelist of our time, or of any, that
outmasters him, and that is Tolstoy. For my own part, I think that the
books of Zola are not immoral, but they are indecent through the facts
that they nakedly represent; they are infinitely more moral than the
books of any other French novelist. This may not be saying a great deal,
but it is saying the truth, and I do not mind owning that he has been one
of my great literary passions, almost as great as Flaubert, and greater
than Daudet or Maupassant, though I have profoundly appreciated the
exquisite artistry of both these. No French writer, however, has moved
me so much as the Spanish, for the French are wanting in the humor which
endears these, and is the quintessence of their charm.

You cannot be at perfect ease with a friend who does not joke, and I
suppose this is what deprived me of a final satisfaction in the company
of Anthony Trollope, who jokes heavily or not at all, and whom I should
otherwise make bold to declare the greatest of English novelists; as it
is, I must put before him Jane Austen, whose books, late in life, have
been a youthful rapture with me. Even without, much humor Trollope's
books have been a vast pleasure to me through their simple truthfulness.
Perhaps if they were more humorous they would not be so true to the
British life and character present in them in the whole length and
breadth of its expansive commonplaceness. It is their serious fidelity
which gives them a value unique in literature, and which if it were
carefully analyzed would afford a principle of the same quality in an
author who was undoubtedly one of the finest of artists as well as the
most Philistine of men.

I came rather late, but I came with all the ardor of what seems my
perennial literary youth, to the love of Thomas Hardy, whom I first knew
in his story 'A Pair of Blue Eyes.' As usual, after I had read this book
and felt the new charm in it, I wished to read the books of no other
author, and to read his books over and over. I love even the faults of
Hardy; I will let him play me any trick he chooses (and he is not above
playing tricks, when he seems to get tired of his story or perplexed with
it), if only he will go on making his peasants talk, and his rather
uncertain ladies get in and out of love, and serve themselves of every
chance that fortune offers them of having their own way. We shrink from
the unmorality of the Latin races, but Hardy has divined in the heart of
our own race a lingering heathenism, which, if not Greek, has certainly
been no more baptized than the neo-hellenism of the Parisians. His
heroines especially exemplify it, and I should be safe in saying that his
Ethelbertas, his Eustacias, his Elfridas, his Bathshebas, his Fancies,
are wholly pagan. I should not dare to ask how much of their charm came
from that fact; and the author does not fail to show you how much harm,
so that it is not on my conscience. His people live very close to the
heart of nature, and no one, unless it is Tourguenief, gives you a richer
and sweeter sense of her unity with human nature. Hardy is a great poet
as well as a great humorist, and if he were not a great artist also his
humor would be enough to endear him to me.


I come now, though not quite in the order of time, to the noblest of all
these enthusiasms--namely, my devotion for the writings of Lyof Tolstoy.
I should wish to speak of him with his own incomparable truth, yet I do
not know how to give a notion of his influence without the effect of
exaggeration. As much as one merely human being can help another I
believe that he has helped me; he has not influenced me in aesthetics
only, but in ethics, too, so that I can never again see life in the way I
saw it before I knew him. Tolstoy awakens in his reader the will to be a
man; not effectively, not spectacularly, but simply, really. He leads
you back to the only true ideal, away from that false standard of the
gentleman, to the Man who sought not to be distinguished from other men,
but identified with them, to that Presence in which the finest gentleman
shows his alloy of vanity, and the greatest genius shrinks to the measure
of his miserable egotism. I learned from Tolstoy to try character and
motive by no other test, and though I am perpetually false to that
sublime ideal myself, still the ideal remains with me, to make me ashamed
that I am not true to it. Tolstoy gave me heart to hope that the world
may yet be made over in the image of Him who died for it, when all
Caesars things shall be finally rendered unto Caesar, and men shall come
into their own, into the right to labor and the right to enjoy the fruits
of their labor, each one master of himself and servant to every other.
He taught me to see life not as a chase of a forever impossible personal
happiness, but as a field for endeavor towards the happiness of the whole
human family; and I can never lose this vision, however I close my eyes,
and strive to see my own interest as the highest good. He gave me new
criterions, new principles, which, after all, were those that are taught
us in our earliest childhood, before we have come to the evil wisdom of
the world. As I read his different ethical books, 'What to Do,'
'My Confession,' and 'My Religion,' I recognized their truth with a
rapture such as I have known in no other reading, and I rendered them my
allegiance, heart and soul, with whatever sickness of the one and despair
of the other. They have it yet, and I believe they will have it while I
live. It is with inexpressible astonishment that I bear them attainted
of pessimism, as if the teaching of a man whose ideal was simple goodness
must mean the prevalence of evil. The way he showed me seemed indeed
impossible to my will, but to my conscience it was and is the only
possible way. If there, is any point on which he has not convinced my
reason it is that of our ability to walk this narrow way alone. Even
there he is logical, but as Zola subtly distinguishes in speaking of
Tolstoy's essay on "Money," he is not reasonable. Solitude enfeebles and
palsies, and it is as comrades and brothers that men must save the world
from itself, rather than themselves from the world. It was so the
earliest Christians, who had all things common, understood the life of
Christ, and I believe that the latest will understand it so.

I have spoken first of the ethical works of Tolstoy, because they are of
the first importance to me, but I think that his aesthetical works are as
perfect. To my thinking they transcend in truth, which is the highest
beauty, all other works of fiction that have been written, and I believe
that they do this because they obey the law of the author's own life.
His conscience is one ethically and one aesthetically; with his will to
be true to himself he cannot be false to his knowledge of others. I
thought the last word in literary art had been said to me by the novels
of Tourguenief, but it seemed like the first, merely, when I began to
acquaint myself with the simpler method of Tolstoy. I came to it by
accident, and without any manner, of preoccupation in The Cossacks, one
of his early books, which had been on my shelves unread for five or six
years. I did not know even Tolstoy's name when I opened it, and it was
with a kind of amaze that I read it, and felt word by word, and line by
line, the truth of a new art in it.

I do not know how it is that the great Russians have the secret of
simplicity. Some say it is because they have not a long literary past
and are not conventionalized by the usage of many generations of other
writers, but this will hardly account for the brotherly directness of
their dealing with human nature; the absence of experience elsewhere
characterizes the artist with crudeness, and simplicity is the last
effect of knowledge. Tolstoy is, of course, the first of them in this
supreme grace. He has not only Tourguenief's transparency of style,
unclouded by any mist of the personality which we mistakenly value in
style, and which ought no more to be there than the artist's personality
should be in a portrait; but he has a method which not only seems without
artifice, but is so. I can get at the manner of most writers, and tell
what it is, but I should be baffled to tell what Tolstoy's manner is;
perhaps he has no manner. This appears to me true of his novels, which,
with their vast variety of character and incident, are alike in their
single endeavor to get the persons living before you, both in their
action and in the peculiarly dramatic interpretation of their emotion and
cogitation. There are plenty of novelists to tell you that their
characters felt and thought so and so, but you have to take it on trust;
Tolstoy alone makes you know how and why it was so with them and not
otherwise. If there is anything in him which can be copied or burlesqued
it is this ability of his to show men inwardly as well as outwardly; it
is the only trait of his which I can put my hand on.

After 'The Cossacks' I read 'Anna Karenina' with a deepening sense of the
author's unrivalled greatness. I thought that I saw through his eyes a
human affair of that most sorrowful sort as it must appear to the
Infinite Compassion; the book is a sort of revelation of human nature in
circumstances that have been so perpetually lied about that we have
almost lost the faculty of perceiving the truth concerning an illicit
love. When you have once read 'Anna Karenina' you know how fatally
miserable and essentially unhappy such a love must be. But the character
of Karenin himself is quite as important as the intrigue of Anna and
Vronsky. It is wonderful how such a man, cold, Philistine and even mean
in certain ways, towers into a sublimity unknown (to me, at least), in
fiction when he forgives, and yet knows that he cannot forgive with
dignity. There is something crucial, and something triumphant, not
beyond the power, but hitherto beyond the imagination of men in this
effect, which is not solicited, not forced, not in the least romantic,
but comes naturally, almost inevitably, from the make of man.

The vast prospects, the far-reaching perspectives of 'War and Peace' made
it as great a surprise for me in the historical novel as 'Anna Karenina'
had been in the study of contemporary life; and its people and interests
did not seem more remote, since they are of a civilization always as
strange and of a humanity always as known.

I read some shorter stories of Tolstoy's before I came to this greatest
work of his: I read 'Scenes of the Siege of Sebastopol,' which is so much
of the same quality as 'War and Peace;' and I read 'Policoushka' and most
of his short stories with a sense of my unity with their people such as I
had never felt with the people of other fiction.

His didactic stories, like all stories of the sort, dwindle into
allegories; perhaps they do their work the better for this, with the
simple intelligences they address; but I think that where Tolstoy becomes
impatient of his office of artist, and prefers to be directly a teacher,
he robs himself of more than half his strength with those he can move
only through the realization of themselves in others. The simple pathos,
and the apparent indirectness of such a tale as that of 'Poticoushka,'
the peasant conscript, is of vastly more value to the world at large than
all his parables; and 'The Death of Ivan Ilyitch,' the Philistine
worldling, will turn the hearts of many more from the love of the world
than such pale fables of the early Christian life as "Work while ye have
the Light." A man's gifts are not given him for nothing, and the man who
has the great gift of dramatic fiction has no right to cast it away or to
let it rust out in disuse.

Terrible as the 'Kreutzer Sonata' was, it had a moral effect dramatically
which it lost altogether when the author descended to exegesis, and
applied to marriage the lesson of one evil marriage. In fine, Tolstoy is
certainly not to be held up as infallible. He is very, distinctly
fallible, but I think his life is not less instructive because in certain
things it seems a failure. There was but one life ever lived upon the
earth which was without failure, and that was Christ's, whose erring and
stumbling follower Tolstoy is. There is no other example, no other
ideal, and the chief use of Tolstoy is to enforce this fact in our age,
after nineteen centuries of hopeless endeavor to substitute ceremony for
character, and the creed for the life. I recognize the truth of this
without pretending to have been changed in anything but my point of view
of it. What I feel sure is that I can never look at life in the mean and
sordid way that I did before I read Tolstoy.

Artistically, he has shown me a greatness that he can never teach me.
I am long past the age when I could wish to form myself upon another
writer, and I do not think I could now insensibly take on the likeness of
another; but his work has been a revelation and a delight to me, such as
I am sure I can never know again. I do not believe that in the whole
course of my reading, and not even in the early moment of my literary
enthusiasms, I have known such utter satisfaction in any writer, and this
supreme joy has come to me at a time of life when new friendships, not to
say new passions, are rare and reluctant. It is as if the best wine at
this high feast where I have sat so long had been kept for the last, and
I need not deny a miracle in it in order to attest my skill in judging
vintages. In fact, I prefer to believe that my life has been full of
miracles, and that the good has always come to me at the right time, so
that I could profit most by it. I believe if I had not turned the corner
of my fiftieth year, when I first knew Tolstoy, I should not have been
able to know him as fully as I did. He has been to me that final
consciousness, which he speaks of so wisely in his essay on "Life."
I came in it to the knowledge of myself in ways I had not dreamt of
before, and began at least to discern my relations to the race, without
which we are each nothing. The supreme art in literature had its highest
effect in making me set art forever below humanity, and it is with the
wish to offer the greatest homage to his heart and mind, which any man
can pay another, that I close this record with the name of Lyof Tolstoy.


Account of one's reading is an account of one's life
Adam Bede
Affections will not be bidden
Air of looking down on the highest
Alliance of the tragic and the comic
Anthony Trollope
Authors I must call my masters
Capriciousness of memory: what it will hold and what lose
Celebration of the monkey and the goat in us
Conquest of Granada
Contemptible he found our pseudo-equality
Criticism still remains behind all the other literary arts
Dickens is purely democratic
Escaped at night and got into the boy's dreams
Fictions subtle effect for good and for evil on the young
Finer sort myself to be able to enjoy such a fine sort
Had the sense that in her eyes I was a queer boy
Hardly any sort of bloodshed which I would not pardon
He undid my hands
Hospitable gift of making you at home with him
In school there was as little literature then as there is now
Inexperience takes this effect (literary lewdness) for realit
Jews are still the chosen people
Kindness and gentleness are never out of fashion
Kissing goes by favor, in literature as in life
Lewd literature seems to give a sanction to lewdness in the life
Life of Goldsmith
Live it slowly into the past
Lubricity of literature
Made many of my acquaintances very tired of my favorite authors
Men who bully and truckle
Mustache, which in those days devoted a man to wickedness
My own youth now seems to me rather more alien
My reading gave me no standing among the boys
Neither worse nor better because of the theatre
Never appeals to the principle which sniffs, in his reader
None of the passions are reasoned,
Not very distinctly know their dreams from their experiences
Now little notion what it was about, but I love its memory
Our horrible sham of a slave-based freedom
Prejudice against certain words that I cannot overcome
President Garfield
Probably no dramatist ever needed the stage less
Rape of the Lock
Rapture of the new convert could not last
Reservations as to the times when he is not a master
Responsibility of finding him all we have been told he is
Secretly admires the splendors he affects to despise
Self-flattered scorn, his showy sighs, his facile satire
Self-satisfied, intolerant, and hypocritical provinciality
Should probably have wasted the time if I had not read them
Slave-based freedom
So long as we have social inequality we shall have snobs
Society, as we have it, was necessarily a sham
Somehow expressed the feelings of his day
Somewhat too studied grace
Speaks it is not with words and blood, but with words and ink
Spit some hapless victim: make him suffer and the reader laugh
Style is the man, and he cannot hide himself in any garb
Surcharge all imitations of life and character
Surcharged in the serious moods, and caricatured in the comic
Tales of the Alhambra
The great doctor's orotundity and ronderosity
To be for good or evil whatsoever I really was
Toiled, and I suppose no work is wasted
Trace no discrepancy between reading his plays and seeing them
Tried to like whatever they bade me like
Truth is beyond invention
Unmeet for ladies
Vicar of Wakefield
Vices and foibles which are inherent in the system of things
We did not know that we were poor
We see nothing whole, neither life nor art
What I had not I could hope for without unreason
What we thought ruin, but what was really release
When was love ever reasoned?
Wide leisure of a country village
Women who snub and crawl
Words of learned length and thundering sound
World's memory is equally bad for failure and success
Worst came it was not half so bad as what had gone before
You cannot be at perfect ease with a friend who does not joke
You may do a great deal(of work), and not get on


By William Dean Howells

The question of a final criterion for the appreciation of art is one that
perpetually recurs to those interested in any sort of aesthetic endeavor.
Mr. John Addington Symonds, in a chapter of 'The Renaissance in Italy'
treating of the Bolognese school of painting, which once had so great
cry, and was vaunted the supreme exemplar of the grand style, but which
he now believes fallen into lasting contempt for its emptiness and
soullessness, seeks to determine whether there can be an enduring
criterion or not; and his conclusion is applicable to literature as to
the other arts. "Our hope," he says, "with regard to the unity of taste
in the future then is, that all sentimental or academical seekings after
the ideal having been abandoned, momentary theories founded upon
idiosyncratic or temporary partialities exploded, and nothing accepted
but what is solid and positive, the scientific spirit shall make men
progressively more and more conscious of these 'bleibende Verhaltnisse,'
more and more capable of living in the whole; also, that in proportion as
we gain a firmer hold upon our own place in the world, we shall come to
comprehend with more instinctive certitude what is simple, natural, and
honest, welcoming with gladness all artistic products that exhibit these
qualities. The perception of the enlightened man will then be the task
of a healthy person who has made himself acquainted with the laws of
evolution in art and in society, and is able to test the excellence of
work in any stage from immaturity to decadence by discerning what there
is of truth, sincerity, and natural vigor in it."


That is to say, as I understand, that moods and tastes and fashions
change; people fancy now this and now that; but what is unpretentious and
what is true is always beautiful and good, and nothing else is so. This
is not saying that fantastic and monstrous and artificial things do not
please; everybody knows that they do please immensely for a time, and
then, after the lapse of a much longer time, they have the charm of the
rococo. Nothing is more curious than the charm that fashion has.
Fashion in women's dress, almost every fashion, is somehow delightful,
else it would never have been the fashion; but if any one will look
through a collection of old fashion plates, he must own that most
fashions have been ugly. A few, which could be readily instanced, have
been very pretty, and even beautiful, but it is doubtful if these have
pleased the greatest number of people. The ugly delights as well as the
beautiful, and not merely because the ugly in fashion is associated with
the young loveliness of the women who wear the ugly fashions, and wins a
grace from them, not because the vast majority of mankind are tasteless,
but for some cause that is not perhaps ascertainable. It is quite as
likely to return in the fashions of our clothes and houses and furniture,
and poetry and fiction and painting, as the beautiful, and it may be from
an instinctive or a reasoned sense of this that some of the extreme
naturalists have refused to make the old discrimination against it, or to
regard the ugly as any less worthy of celebration in art than the
beautiful; some of them, in fact, seem to regard it as rather more
worthy, if anything. Possibly there is no absolutely ugly, no absolutely
beautiful; or possibly the ugly contains always an element of the
beautiful better adapted to the general appreciation than the more
perfectly beautiful. This is a somewhat discouraging conjecture, but I
offer it for no more than it is worth; and I do not pin my faith to the
saying of one whom I heard denying, the other day, that a thing of beauty
was a joy forever. He contended that Keats's line should have read,
"Some things of beauty are sometimes joys forever," and that any
assertion beyond this was too hazardous.


I should, indeed, prefer another line of Keats's, if I were to profess
any formulated creed, and should feel much safer with his "Beauty is
Truth, Truth Beauty," than even with my friend's reformation of the more
quoted verse. It brings us back to the solid ground taken by Mr.
Symonds, which is not essentially different from that taken in the great
Mr. Burke's Essay on the Sublime and the Beautiful--a singularly modern
book, considering how long ago it was wrote (as the great Mr. Steele
would have written the participle a little longer ago), and full of a
certain well-mannered and agreeable instruction. In some things it is of
that droll little eighteenth-century world, when philosophy had got the
neat little universe into the hollow of its hand, and knew just what it
was, and what it was for; but it is quite without arrogance. "As for
those called critics," the author says, "they have generally sought
the rule of the arts in the wrong place; they have sought among poems,
pictures, engravings, statues, and buildings; but art can never give the
rules that make an art. This is, I believe, the reason why artists in
general, and poets principally, have been confined in so narrow a circle;
they have been rather imitators of one another than of nature. Critics
follow them, and therefore can do little as guides. I can judge but
poorly of anything while I measure it by no other standard than itself.
The true standard of the arts is in every man's power; and an easy
observation of the most common, sometimes of the meanest things, in
nature will give the truest lights, where the greatest sagacity and
industry that slights such observation must leave us in the dark, or,
what is worse, amuse and mislead us by false lights."

If this should happen to be true and it certainly commends itself to
acceptance--it might portend an immediate danger to the vested interests
of criticism, only that it was written a hundred years ago; and we shall
probably have the "sagacity and industry that slights the observation" of
nature long enough yet to allow most critics the time to learn some more
useful trade than criticism as they pursue it. Nevertheless, I am in
hopes that the communistic era in taste foreshadowed by Burke is
approaching, and that it will occur within the lives of men now overawed
by the foolish old superstition that literature and art are anything but
the expression of life, and are to be judged by any other test than that
of their fidelity to it. The time is coming, I hope, when each new
author, each new artist, will be considered, not in his proportion to any
other author or artist, but in his relation to the human nature, known to
us all, which it is his privilege, his high duty, to interpret. "The
true standard of the artist is in every man's power" already, as Burke
says; Michelangelo's "light of the piazza," the glance of the common eye,
is and always was the best light on a statue; Goethe's "boys and
blackbirds" have in all ages been the real connoisseurs of berries; but
hitherto the mass of common men have been afraid to apply their own
simplicity, naturalness, and honesty to the appreciation of the
beautiful. They have always cast about for the instruction of some one
who professed to know better, and who browbeat wholesome common-sense
into the self-distrust that ends in sophistication. They have fallen
generally to the worst of this bad species, and have been "amused and
misled" (how pretty that quaint old use of amuse is!) "by the false
lights" of critical vanity and self-righteousness. They have been taught
to compare what they see and what they read, not with the things that
they have observed and known, but with the things that some other artist
or writer has done. Especially if they have themselves the artistic
impulse in any direction they are taught to form themselves, not upon
life, but upon the masters who became masters only by forming themselves
upon life. The seeds of death are planted in them, and they can produce
only the still-born, the academic. They are not told to take their work
into the public square and see if it seems true to the chance passer, but
to test it by the work of the very men who refused and decried any other
test of their own work. The young writer who attempts to report the
phrase and carriage of every-day life, who tries to tell just how he has
heard men talk and seen them look, is made to feel guilty of something
low and unworthy by people who would like to have him show how
Shakespeare's men talked and looked, or Scott's, or Thackeray's, or
Balzac's, or Hawthorne's, or Dickens's; he is instructed to idealize his
personages, that is, to take the life-likeness out of them, and put the
book-likeness into them. He is approached in the spirit of the pedantry
into which learning, much or little, always decays when it withdraws
itself and stands apart from experience in an attitude of imagined
superiority, and which would say with the same confidence to the
scientist: "I see that you are looking at a grasshopper there which you
have found in the grass, and I suppose you intend to describe it. Now
don't waste your time and sin against culture in that way. I've got a
grasshopper here, which has been evolved at considerable pains and
expense out of the grasshopper in general; in fact, it's a type. It's
made up of wire and card-board, very prettily painted in a conventional
tint, and it's perfectly indestructible. It isn't very much like a real
grasshopper, but it's a great deal nicer, and it's served to represent
the notion of a grasshopper ever since man emerged from barbarism. You
may say that it's artificial. Well, it is artificial; but then it's
ideal too; and what you want to do is to cultivate the ideal. You'll
find the books full of my kind of grasshopper, and scarcely a trace of
yours in any of them. The thing that you are proposing to do is
commonplace; but if you say that it isn't commonplace, for the very
reason that it hasn't been done before, you'll have to admit that it's

As I said, I hope the time is coming when not only the artist, but the
common, average man, who always "has the standard of the arts in his
power," will have also the courage to apply it, and will reject the ideal
grasshopper wherever he finds it, in science, in literature, in art,
because it is not "simple, natural, and honest," because it is not like a
real grasshopper. But I will own that I think the time is yet far off,
and that the people who have been brought up on the ideal grasshopper,
the heroic grasshopper, the impassioned grasshopper, the self-devoted,
adventureful, good old romantic card-board grasshopper, must die out
before the simple, honest, and natural grasshopper can have a fair field.
I am in no haste to compass the end of these good people, whom I find in
the mean time very amusing. It is delightful to meet one of them, either
in print or out of it--some sweet elderly lady or excellent gentleman
whose youth was pastured on the literature of thirty or forty years ago
--and to witness the confidence with which they preach their favorite
authors as all the law and the prophets. They have commonly read little
or nothing since, or, if they have, they have judged it by a standard
taken from these authors, and never dreamed of judging it by nature; they
are destitute of the documents in the case of the later writers; they
suppose that Balzac was the beginning of realism, and that Zola is its
wicked end; they are quite ignorant, but they are ready to talk you down,
if you differ from them, with an assumption of knowledge sufficient for
any occasion. The horror, the resentment, with which they receive any
question of their literary saints is genuine; you descend at once very
far in the moral and social scale, and anything short of offensive
personality is too good for you; it is expressed to you that you are one
to be avoided, and put down even a little lower than you have naturally

These worthy persons are not to blame; it is part of their intellectual
mission to represent the petrifaction of taste, and to preserve an image
of a smaller and cruder and emptier world than we now live in, a world
which was feeling its way towards the simple, the natural, the honest,
but was a good deal "amused and misled" by lights now no longer
mistakable for heavenly luminaries. They belong to a time, just passing
away, when certain authors were considered authorities in certain kinds,
when they must be accepted entire and not questioned in any particular.
Now we are beginning to see and to say that no author is an authority
except in those moments when he held his ear close to Nature's lips and
caught her very accent. These moments are not continuous with any
authors in the past, and they are rare with all. Therefore I am not
afraid to say now that the greatest classics are sometimes not at all
great, and that we can profit by them only when we hold them, like our
meanest contemporaries, to a strict accounting, and verify their work by
the standard of the arts which we all have in our power, the simple, the
natural, and the honest.

Those good people must always have a hero, an idol of some sort, and it
is droll to find Balzac, who suffered from their sort such bitter scorn
and hate for his realism while he was alive, now become a fetich in his
turn, to be shaken in the faces of those who will not blindly worship
him. But it is no new thing in the history of literature: whatever is
established is sacred with those who do not think. At the beginning of
the century, when romance was making the same fight against effete
classicism which realism is making to-day against effete romanticism, the
Italian poet Monti declared that "the romantic was the cold grave of the
Beautiful," just as the realistic is now supposed to be. The romantic of
that day and the real of this are in certain degree the same.
Romanticism then sought, as realism seeks now, to widen the bounds of
sympathy, to level every barrier against aesthetic freedom, to escape
from the paralysis of tradition. It exhausted itself in this impulse;
and it remained for realism to assert that fidelity to experience and
probability of motive are essential conditions of a great imaginative
literature. It is not a new theory, but it has never before universally
characterized literary endeavor. When realism becomes false to itself,
when it heaps up facts merely, and maps life instead of picturing it,
realism will perish too. Every true realist instinctively knows this,
and it is perhaps the reason why he is careful of every fact, and feels
himself bound to express or to indicate its meaning at the risk of
overmoralizing. In life he finds nothing insignificant; all tells for
destiny and character; nothing that God has made is contemptible. He
cannot look upon human life and declare this thing or that thing unworthy
of notice, any more than the scientist can declare a fact of the material
world beneath the dignity of his inquiry. He feels in every nerve the
equality of things and the unity of men; his soul is exalted, not by vain
shows and shadows and ideals, but by realities, in which alone the truth
lives. In criticism it is his business to break the images of false gods
and misshapen heroes, to take away the poor silly, toys that many grown
people would still like to play with. He cannot keep terms with "Jack
the Giant-killer" or "Puss-in-Boots," under any name or in any place,
even when they reappear as the convict Vautrec, or the Marquis de
Montrivaut, or the Sworn Thirteen Noblemen. He must say to himself that
Balzac, when he imagined these monsters, was not Balzac, he was Dumas; he
was not realistic, he was romanticistic.


Such a critic will not respect Balzac's good work the less for contemning
his bad work. He will easily account for the bad work historically, and
when he has recognized it, will trouble himself no further with it. In
his view no living man is a type, but a character; now noble, now
ignoble; now grand, now little; complex, full of vicissitude. He will
not expect Balzac to be always Balzac, and will be perhaps even more
attracted to the study of him when he was trying to be Balzac than when
he had become so. In 'Cesar Birotteau,' for instance, he will be
interested to note how Balzac stood at the beginning of the great things
that have followed since in fiction. There is an interesting likeness
between his work in this and Nicolas Gogol's in 'Dead Souls,' which
serves to illustrate the simultaneity of the literary movement in men of
such widely separated civilizations and conditions. Both represent their
characters with the touch of exaggeration which typifies; but in bringing
his story to a close, Balzac employs a beneficence unknown to the
Russian, and almost as universal and as apt as that which smiles upon the
fortunes of the good in the Vicar of Wakefield. It is not enough to have
rehabilitated Birotteau pecuniarily and socially; he must make him die
triumphantly, spectacularly, of an opportune hemorrhage, in the midst of
the festivities which celebrate his restoration to his old home. Before
this happens, human nature has been laid under contribution right and
left for acts of generosity towards the righteous bankrupt; even the king
sends him six thousand francs. It is very pretty; it is touching, and
brings the lump into the reader's throat; but it is too much, and one
perceives that Balzac lived too soon to profit by Balzac. The later men,
especially the Russians, have known how to forbear the excesses of
analysis, to withhold the weakly recurring descriptive and caressing
epithets, to let the characters suffice for themselves. All this does
not mean that 'Cesar Birotteau' is not a beautiful and pathetic story,
full of shrewdly considered knowledge of men, and of a good art
struggling to free itself from self-consciousness. But it does mean that
Balzac, when he wrote it, was under the burden of the very traditions
which he has helped fiction to throw off. He felt obliged to construct a
mechanical plot, to surcharge his characters, to moralize openly and
baldly; he permitted himself to "sympathize" with certain of his people,
and to point out others for the abhorrence of his readers. This is not
so bad in him as it would be in a novelist of our day. It is simply
primitive and inevitable, and he is not to be judged by it.


In the beginning of any art even the most gifted worker must be crude in
his methods, and we ought to keep this fact always in mind when we turn,
say, from the purblind worshippers of Scott to Scott himself, and
recognize that he often wrote a style cumbrous and diffuse; that he was
tediously analytical where the modern novelist is dramatic, and evolved
his characters by means of long-winded explanation and commentary; that,
except in the case of his lower-class personages, he made them talk as
seldom man and never woman talked; that he was tiresomely descriptive;
that on the simplest occasions he went about half a mile to express a
thought that could be uttered in ten paces across lots; and that he
trusted his readers' intuitions so little that he was apt to rub in his
appeals to them. He was probably right: the generation which he wrote
for was duller than this; slower-witted, aesthetically untrained, and in
maturity not so apprehensive of an artistic intention as the children of
to-day. All this is not saying Scott was not a great man; he was a great
man, and a very great novelist as compared with the novelists who went
before him. He can still amuse young people, but they ought to be
instructed how false and how mistaken he often is, with his mediaeval
ideals, his blind Jacobitism, his intense devotion to aristocracy and
royalty; his acquiescence in the division of men into noble and ignoble,
patrician and plebeian, sovereign and subject, as if it were the law of
God; for all which, indeed, he is not to blame as he would be if he were
one of our contemporaries. Something of this is true of another master,
greater than Scott in being less romantic, and inferior in being more
German, namely, the great Goethe himself. He taught us, in novels
otherwise now antiquated, and always full of German clumsiness, that it
was false to good art--which is never anything but the reflection of
life--to pursue and round the career of the persons introduced, whom he
often allowed to appear and disappear in our knowledge as people in the
actual world do. This is a lesson which the writers able to profit by it
can never be too grateful for; and it is equally a benefaction to
readers; but there is very little else in the conduct of the Goethean
novels which is in advance of their time; this remains almost their sole
contribution to the science of fiction. They are very primitive in
certain characteristics, and unite with their calm, deep insight, an
amusing helplessness in dramatization. "Wilhelm retired to his room, and
indulged in the following reflections," is a mode of analysis which would
not be practised nowadays; and all that fancifulness of nomenclature in
Wilhelm Meister is very drolly sentimental and feeble. The adventures
with robbers seem as if dreamed out of books of chivalry, and the
tendency to allegorization affects one like an endeavor on the author's
part to escape from the unrealities which he must have felt harassingly,
German as he was. Mixed up with the shadows and illusions are honest,
wholesome, every-day people, who have the air of wandering homelessly
about among them, without definite direction; and the mists are full of a
luminosity which, in spite of them, we know for common-sense and poetry.
What is useful in any review of Goethe's methods is the recognition of
the fact, which it must bring, that the greatest master cannot produce a
masterpiece in a new kind. The novel was too recently invented in
Goethe's day not to be, even in his hands, full of the faults of
apprentice work.


In fact, a great master may sin against the "modesty of nature" in many
ways, and I have felt this painfully in reading Balzac's romance--it is
not worthy the name of novel--'Le Pere Goriot,' which is full of a
malarial restlessness, wholly alien to healthful art. After that
exquisitely careful and truthful setting of his story in the shabby
boarding-house, he fills the scene with figures jerked about by the
exaggerated passions and motives of the stage. We cannot have a cynic
reasonably wicked, disagreeable, egoistic; we must have a lurid villain
of melodrama, a disguised convict, with a vast criminal organization at
his command, and

"So dyed double red"

indeed and purpose that he lights up the faces of the horrified
spectators with his glare. A father fond of unworthy children, and
leading a life of self-denial for their sake, as may probably and
pathetically be, is not enough; there must be an imbecile, trembling
dotard, willing to promote even the liaisons of his daughters to give
them happiness and to teach the sublimity of the paternal instinct.
The hero cannot sufficiently be a selfish young fellow, with alternating
impulses of greed and generosity; he must superfluously intend a career
of iniquitous splendor, and be swerved from it by nothing but the most
cataclysmal interpositions. It can be said that without such personages
the plot could not be transacted; but so much the worse for the plot.
Such a plot had no business to be; and while actions so unnatural are
imagined, no mastery can save fiction from contempt with those who really
think about it. To Balzac it can be forgiven, not only because in his
better mood he gave us such biographies as 'Eugenie Grandet,' but because
he wrote at a time when fiction was just beginning to verify the
externals of life, to portray faithfully the outside of men and things.
It was still held that in order to interest the reader the characters
must be moved by the old romantic ideals; we were to be taught that
"heroes" and "heroines" existed all around us, and that these abnormal
beings needed only to be discovered in their several humble disguises,
and then we should see every-day people actuated by the fine frenzy of
the creatures of the poets. How false that notion was, few but the
critics, who are apt to be rather belated, need now be told. Some of
these poor fellows, however, still contend that it ought to be done, and
that human feelings and motives, as God made them and as men know them,
are not good enough for novel-readers.

This is more explicable than would appear at first glance. The critics
--and in speaking of them one always modestly leaves one's self out of
the count, for some reason--when they are not elders ossified in
tradition, are apt to be young people, and young people are necessarily
conservative in their tastes and theories. They have the tastes and
theories of their instructors, who perhaps caught the truth of their day,
but whose routine life has been alien to any other truth. There is
probably no chair of literature in this country from which the principles
now shaping the literary expression of every civilized people are not
denounced and confounded with certain objectionable French novels, or
which teaches young men anything of the universal impulse which has given
us the work, not only of Zola, but of Tourguenief and Tolstoy in Russia,
of Bjornson and Ibsen in Norway, of Valdes and Galdos in Spain, of Verga
in Italy. Till these younger critics have learned to think as well as to
write for themselves they will persist in heaving a sigh, more and more
perfunctory, for the truth as it was in Sir Walter, and as it was in
Dickens and in Hawthorne. Presently all will have been changed; they
will have seen the new truth in larger and larger degree; and when it
shall have become the old truth, they will perhaps see it all.


In the mean time the average of criticism is not wholly bad with us.
To be sure, the critic sometimes appears in the panoply of the savages
whom we have supplanted on this continent; and it is hard to believe that
his use of the tomahawk and the scalping-knife is a form of conservative
surgery. It is still his conception of his office that he should assail
those who differ with him in matters of taste or opinion; that he must be
rude with those he does not like. It is too largely his superstition
that because he likes a thing it is good, and because he dislikes a thing
it is bad; the reverse is quite possibly the case, but he is yet
indefinitely far from knowing that in affairs of taste his personal
preference enters very little. Commonly he has no principles, but only
an assortment of prepossessions for and against; and this otherwise very
perfect character is sometimes uncandid to the verge of dishonesty. He
seems not to mind misstating the position of any one he supposes himself
to disagree with, and then attacking him for what he never said, or even
implied; he thinks this is droll, and appears not to suspect that it is
immoral. He is not tolerant; he thinks it a virtue to be intolerant; it
is hard for him to understand that the same thing may be admirable at one
time and deplorable at another; and that it is really his business to
classify and analyze the fruits of the human mind very much as the
naturalist classifies the objects of his study, rather than to praise or
blame them; that there is a measure of the same absurdity in his
trampling on a poem, a novel, or an essay that does not please him as in
the botanist's grinding a plant underfoot because he does not find it
pretty. He does not conceive that it is his business rather to identify
the species and then explain how and where the specimen is imperfect and
irregular. If he could once acquire this simple idea of his duty he
would be much more agreeable company than he now is, and a more useful
member of society; though considering the hard conditions under which he
works, his necessity of writing hurriedly from an imperfect examination
of far more books, on a greater variety of subjects, than he can even
hope to read, the average American critic--the ordinary critic of
commerce, so to speak--is even now very, well indeed. Collectively he is
more than this; for the joint effect of our criticism is the pretty
thorough appreciation of any book submitted to it


The misfortune rather than the fault of our individual critic is that he
is the heir of the false theory and bad manners of the English school.
The theory of that school has apparently been that almost any person of
glib and lively expression is competent to write of almost any branch of
polite literature; its manners are what we know. The American, whom it
has largely formed, is by nature very glib and very lively, and commonly
his criticism, viewed as imaginative work, is more agreeable than that of
the Englishman; but it is, like the art of both countries, apt to be
amateurish. In some degree our authors have freed themselves from
English models; they have gained some notion of the more serious work of
the Continent: but it is still the ambition of the American critic to
write like the English critic, to show his wit if not his learning, to
strive to eclipse the author under review rather than illustrate him.
He has not yet caught on to the fact that it is really no part of his
business to display himself, but that it is altogether his duty to place
a book in such a light that the reader shall know its class, its
function, its character. The vast good-nature of our people preserves us
from the worst effects of this criticism without principles. Our critic,
at his lowest, is rarely malignant; and when he is rude or untruthful,
it is mostly without truculence; I suspect that he is often offensive
without knowing that he is so. Now and then he acts simply under
instruction from higher authority, and denounces because it is the
tradition of his publication to do so. In other cases the critic is
obliged to support his journal's repute for severity, or for wit, or for
morality, though he may himself be entirely amiable, dull, and wicked;
this necessity more or less warps his verdicts.

The worst is that he is personal, perhaps because it is so easy and so
natural to be personal, and so instantly attractive. In this respect our
criticism has not improved from the accession of numbers of ladies to its
ranks, though we still hope so much from women in our politics when they
shall come to vote. They have come to write, and with the effect to
increase the amount of little-digging, which rather superabounded in our
literary criticism before. They "know what they like"--that pernicious
maxim of those who do not know what they ought to like and they pass
readily from censuring an author's performance to censuring him. They
bring a stock of lively misapprehensions and prejudices to their work;
they would rather have heard about than known about a book; and they take
kindly to the public wish to be amused rather than edified. But neither
have they so much harm in them: they, too, are more ignorant than


Our criticism is disabled by the unwillingness of the critic to learn
from an author, and his readiness to mistrust him. A writer passes his
whole life in fitting himself for a certain kind of performance; the
critic does not ask why, or whether the performance is good or bad, but
if he does not like the kind, he instructs the writer to go off and do
some other sort of thing--usually the sort that has been done already,
and done sufficiently. If he could once understand that a man who has
written the book he dislikes, probably knows infinitely more about its
kind and his own fitness for doing it than any one else, the critic might
learn something, and might help the reader to learn; but by putting
himself in a false position, a position of superiority, he is of no use.
He is not to suppose that an author has committed an offence against him
by writing the kind of book he does not like; he will be far more
profitably employed on behalf of the reader in finding out whether they
had better not both like it. Let him conceive of an author as not in any
wise on trial before him, but as a reflection of this or that aspect of
life, and he will not be tempted to browbeat him or bully him.

The critic need not be impolite even to the youngest and weakest author.
A little courtesy, or a good deal, a constant perception of the fact that
a book is not a misdemeanor, a decent self-respect that must forbid the
civilized man the savage pleasure of wounding, are what I would ask for
our criticism, as something which will add sensibly to its present


I would have my fellow-critics consider what they are really in the world
for. The critic must perceive, if he will question himself more
carefully, that his office is mainly to ascertain facts and traits of
literature, not to invent or denounce them; to discover principles, not
to establish them; to report, not to create.

It is so much easier to say that you like this or dislike that, than to
tell why one thing is, or where another thing comes from, that many
flourishing critics will have to go out of business altogether if the
scientific method comes in, for then the critic will have to know
something besides his own mind. He will have to know something of the
laws of that mind, and of its generic history.

The history of all literature shows that even with the youngest and
weakest author criticism is quite powerless against his will to do his
own work in his own way; and if this is the case in the green wood, how
much more in the dry! It has been thought by the sentimentalist that
criticism, if it cannot cure, can at least kill, and Keats was long
alleged in proof of its efficacy in this sort. But criticism neither
cured nor killed Keats, as we all now very well know. It wounded, it
cruelly hurt him, no doubt; and it is always in the power of the critic
to give pain to the author--the meanest critic to the greatest author--
for no one can help feeling a rudeness. But every literary movement has
been violently opposed at the start, and yet never stayed in the least,
or arrested, by criticism; every author has been condemned for his
virtues, but in no wise changed by it. In the beginning he reads the
critics; but presently perceiving that he alone makes or mars himself,
and that they have no instruction for him, he mostly leaves off reading
them, though he is always glad of their kindness or grieved by their
harshness when he chances upon it. This, I believe, is the general
experience, modified, of course, by exceptions.

Then, are we critics of no use in the world? I should not like to think
that, though I am not quite ready to define our use. More than one sober

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