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My Literary Passions by William Dean Howells

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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

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