A Psychological Counter-Current in Recent Fiction
William Dean Howells


by William Dean Howells

It is consoling as often as dismaying to find in what seems a
cataclysmal tide of a certain direction a strong drift to the
opposite quarter. It is so divinable, if not so perceptible,
that its presence may usually be recognized as a beginning of the
turn in every tide which is sure, sooner or later, to come. In
reform, it is the menace of reaction; in reaction, it is the
promise of reform; we may take heart as we must lose heart from
it. A few years ago, when a movement which carried fiction to
the highest place in literature was apparently of such onward
and upward sweep that there could be no return or descent, there
was a counter-current in it which stayed it at last, and pulled
it back to that lamentable level where fiction is now sunk, and
the word "novel" is again the synonym of all that is morally
false and mentally despicable. Yet that this, too, is partly
apparent, I think can be shown from some phases of actual
fiction which happen to be its very latest phases, and which are
of a significance as hopeful as it is interesting. Quite as
surely as romanticism lurked at the heart of realism, something
that we may call "psychologism" has been present in the
romanticism of the last four or five years, and has now begun to
evolve itself in examples which it is the pleasure as well as the
duty of criticism to deal with.


No one in his day has done more to popularize the romanticism,
now decadent, than Mr. Gilbert Parker; and he made way for it at
its worst just because he was so much better than it was at its
worst, because he was a poet of undeniable quality, and because
he could bring to its intellectual squalor the graces and the
powers which charm, though they could not avail to save it from
final contempt. He saves himself in his latest novel, because,
though still so largely romanticistic, its prevalent effect is
psychologistic, which is the finer analogue of realistic, and
which gave realism whatever was vital in it, as now it gives
romanticism whatever will survive it. In "The Right of Way" Mr.
Parker is not in a world where mere determinism rules, where
there is nothing but the happening of things, and where this one
or that one is important or unimportant according as things are
happening to him or not, but has in himself no claim upon the
reader's attention. Once more the novel begins to rise to its
higher function, and to teach that men are somehow masters of
their fate. His Charley Steele is, indeed, as unpromising
material for the experiment, in certain ways, as could well be
chosen. One of the few memorable things that Bulwer said, who
said so many quotable things, was that pure intellectuality is
the devil, and on his plane Charley Steele comes near being pure
intellectual. He apprehends all things from the mind, and does
the effects even of goodness from the pride of mental strength.
Add to these conditions of his personality that pathologically he
is from time to time a drunkard, with always the danger of
remaining a drunkard, and you have a figure of which so much may
be despaired that it might almost be called hopeless. I confess
that in the beginning this brilliant, pitiless lawyer, this
consciencelessly powerful advocate, at once mocker and poseur,
all but failed to interest me. A little of him and his monocle
went such a great way with me that I thought I had enough of him
by the end of the trial, where he gets off a man charged with
murder, and then cruelly snubs the homicide in his gratitude; and
I do not quite know how I kept on to the point where Steele in
his drunkenness first dazzles and then insults the gang of
drunken lumbermen, and begins his second life in the river where
they have thrown him, and where his former client finds him.
From that point I could not forsake him to the end, though I
found myself more than once in the world where things happen of
themselves and do not happen from the temperaments of its
inhabitants. In a better and wiser world, the homicide would not
perhaps be at hand so opportunely to save the life of the
advocate who had saved his; but one consents to this, as one
consents to a great deal besides in the story, which is
imaginably the survival of a former method. The artist's affair
is to report the appearance, the effect; and in the real world,
the appearance, the effect, is that of law and not of miracle.
Nature employs the miracle so very sparingly that most of us go
through life without seeing one, and some of us contract such a
prejudice against miracles that when they are performed for us we
suspect a trick. When I suffered from this suspicion in "The
Right of Way" I was the more vexed because I felt that I was in
the hands of a connoisseur of character who had no need of

I have liked Mr. Parker's treatment of French-Canadian life, as
far as I have known it; and in this novel it is one of the
principal pleasures for me. He may not have his habitant, his
seigneur or his cure down cold, but he makes me believe that he
has, and I can ask no more than that of him. In like manner, he
makes the ambient, physical as well as social, sensible around
me: the cold rivers, the hard, clear skies, the snowy woods and
fields, the little frozen villages of Canada. In this book,
which is historical of the present rather than the past, he gives
one a realizing sense of the Canadians, not only in the country
but in the city, at least so far as they affect each other
psychologically in society, and makes one feel their interesting
temperamental difference from Americans. His Montrealers are
still Englishmen in their strenuous individuality; but in the
frank expression of character, of eccentricity, Charley Steele is
like a type of lawyer in our West, of an epoch when people were
not yet content to witness ideals of themselves, but when they
wished to be their poetry rather than to read it. In his second
life he has the charm for the imagination that a disembodied
spirit might have, if it could be made known to us in the
circumstances of another world. He has, indeed, made almost as
clean a break with his past as if he had really been drowned in
the river. When, after the term of oblivion, in which he knows
nothing of his past self, he is restored to his identity by a
famous surgeon too opportunely out of Paris, on a visit to his
brother, the cure, the problem is how he shall expiate the errors
of his past, work out his redemption in his new life; and the
author solves it for him by appointing him to a life of unselfish
labor, illumined by actions of positive beneficence. It is
something like the solution which Goethe imagines for Faust, and
perhaps no other is imaginable. In contriving it, Mr. Parker
indulges the weaker brethren with an abundance of accident and a
luxury of catastrophe, which the reader interested in the
psychology of the story may take as little account of as he
likes. Without so much of them he might have made a
sculpturesque romance as clearly and nobly definite as "The
Scarlet Letter"; with them he has made a most picturesque
romantic novel. His work, as I began by saying, or hinting, is
the work of a poet, in conception, and I wish that in some
details of diction it were as elect as the author's verse is.
But one must not expect everything; and in what it is, "The Right
of Way" satisfies a reasonable demand on the side of literature,
while it more than meets a reasonable expectation on the side of
psychological interest. Distinctly it marks an epoch in
contemporary noveling, and mounts far above the average best
toward the day of better things which I hope it is not rash to
image dawning.


I am sure I do not merely fancy the auroral light in a group of
stories by another poet. "The Ruling Passion," Dr. Henry Van Dyke
calls his book, which relates itself by a double tie to Mr.
Parker's novel through kinship of Canadian landscape and
character, and through the prevalence of psychologism over
determinism in it. In the situations and incidents studied with
sentiment that saves itself from sentimentality sometimes with
greater and sometimes with less ease, but saves itself, the
appeal is from the soul in the character to the soul in the
reader, and not from brute event to his sensation. I believe
that I like best among these charming things the two
sketches--they are hardly stories--"A Year of Nobility" and "The
Keeper of the Dight," though if I were asked to say why, I should
be puzzled. Perhaps it is because I find in the two pieces named
a greater detachment than I find in some others of Dr. Van Dyke's
delightful volume, and greater evidence that he has himself so
thoroughly and finally mastered his material that he is no longer
in danger of being unduly affected by it. That is a danger which
in his very quality of lyrical poet he is most liable to, for he
is above all a lyrical poet, and such drama as the chorus usually
comments is the drama next his heart. The pieces, in fact, are
so many idyls, and their realism is an effect which he has felt
rather than reasoned his way to. It is implicational rather than
intentional. It is none the worse but all the better on that
account, and I cannot say that the psychologism is the worse for
being frankly, however uninsistently, moralized. A humor,
delicate and genuine as the poetry of the stories, plays through
them, and the milde macht of sympathy with everything human
transfers to the pleasant pages the foresters and fishermen from
their native woods and waters. Canada seems the home of
primitive character; the seventeenth century survives there among
the habitants, with their steadfast faith, their picturesque
superstitions, their old world traditions and their new world
customs. It is the land not only of the habitant, but of his
oversoul, the good cure, and his overlord the seigneur, now faded
economically, but still lingering socially in the scene of his
large possessions. Their personality imparts a charm to the many
books about them which at present there seems to be no end to the
making of; and such a fine touch as Dr. Van Dyke's gives us a
likeness of them, which if it is idealized is idealized by
reservation, not by attribution.


Mr. William Allen White's method is the reverse of Dr. Van
Dyke's. If he has held his hand anywhere the reader does not
suspect it, for it seems, with its relentless power of
realization, to be laid upon the whole political life of Kansas,
which it keeps in a clutch so penetrating, so comprehensive, that
the reader does not quite feel his own vitals free from it. Very
likely, it does not grasp the whole situation; after all, it is a
picture, not a map, that Mr. White has been making, and the
photograph itself, though it may include, does not represent
everything. Some years ago there was a silly attempt to reproach
the true painters of manners by calling them photographic, but I
doubt if even then Mr. White would have minded any such censure
of his conscientious work, and I am sure that now he would count
it honor. He cannot be the admirable artist he is without
knowing that it is the inwardness as well as the outwardness of
men that he photographs, and if the reader does not know it, the
worse for the reader. He is not the sort of reader who will rise
from this book humiliated and fortified, as any reader worthy of
it will.

The author has put his best foot forward in the opening story,
"The Man on Horseback," which, when I read it a few years ago in
the magazine where it first appeared, seemed to me so perfect in
its way that I should not have known how to better it. Of
course, this is a good deal for a critic to say; it is something
like abdicating his office; but I repeat it. It takes rather
more courage for a man to be honest in fiction than out of it,
for people do not much expect it of him, or altogether like it in
him; but in "The Man on Horseback" Mr. White is at every moment
honest. He is honest, if not so impressively honest, in the
other stories, "A Victory for the People," "A Triumph's
Evidence," "The Mercy of Death," and "A Most Lamentable Comedy;"
and where he fails of perfect justice to his material, I think it
is because of his unconscious political bias, rather than
anything wilfuller. In the story last named this betrays itself
in his treatment of a type of man who could not be faithful to
any sort of movement, and whose unfaithfulness does not
necessarily censure the movement Mr. White dislikes. Wonderfully
good as the portrait of Dan Gregg is, it wants the final touch
which could have come only from a little kindness. His story
might have been called "The Man on Foot," by the sort of
antithesis which I should not blame Mr. White for scorning, and I
should not say anything of it worse than that it is pitilessly
hard, which the story of "The Man on Horseback" is not, or any of
the other stories. Sentimentality of any kind is alien to the
author's nature, but not tenderness, especially that sparing sort
which gives his life to the man who is down.

Most of the men whom Mr. White deals with are down, as most men
in the struggle of life are. Few of us can be on top morally,
almost as few as can be on top materially; and probably nothing
will more surprise the saints at the judgment day than to find
themselves in such a small minority. But probably not the saints
alone will be saved, and it is some such hope that Mr. White has
constantly in mind when making his constant appeal to conscience.
It is, of course, a dramatic, not a didactic appeal. He preaches
so little and is so effectively reticent that I could almost with
he had left out the preface of his book, good as it is. Yes,
just because it is so good I could wish he had left it out. It
is a perfect justification of his purpose and methods, but they
are their own justification with all who can think about them,
and the others are themselves not worth thinking about. The
stories are so bravely faithful to human nature in that political
aspect which is but one phase of our whole average life that they
are magnificently above all need of excusing or defending. They
form a substantial body of political fiction, such as we have so
long sighed for, and such as some of us will still go on sighing
for quite as if it had not been supplied. Some others will be
aware that it has been supplied in a form as artistically fine as
the material itself is coarse and common, if indeed any sort of
humanity is coarse and common except to those who themselves are

The meaning that animates the stories is that our political
opportunity is trammelled only so far as we have trammelled it by
our greed and falsehood; and in this aspect the psychology of Mr.
White offers the strongest contrast to that of the latest Russian
master in fiction. Maxim Gorky's wholly hopeless study of
degeneracy in the life of "Foma Gordyeeff" accuses conditions
which we can only imagine with difficulty. As one advances
through the moral waste of that strange book one slowly perceives
that he is in a land of No Use, in an ambient of such iron fixity
and inexorable bounds that perhaps Foma's willingness to rot
through vice into imbecility is as wise as anything else there.
It is a book that saturates the soul with despair, and blights it
with the negation which seems the only possible truth in the
circumstances; so that one questions whether the Russian in which
Turgenieff and Tolstoy, and even Dostoyevsky, could animate the
volition and the expectation of better things has not sunk to
depths beyond any counsel of amelioration. To come up out of
that Bottomless Pit into the measureless air of Mr. White's
Kansas plains is like waking from death to life. We are still
among dreadfully fallible human beings, but we are no longer
among the damned; with the worst there is a purgatorial
possibility of Paradise. Even the perdition of Dan Gregg then
seems not the worst that could befall him; he might again have
been governor.


If the human beings in Dr. Weir Mitchell's very interesting novel
of "Circumstance" do not seem so human as those Russians of Gorky
and those Kansans of Mr. White, it is because people in society
are always human with difficulty, and his Philadelphians are
mostly in society. They are almost reproachfully exemplary, in
some instances; and it is when they give way to the natural man,
and especially the natural woman, that they are consoling and
edifying. When Mary Fairthorne begins to scold her cousin, Kitty
Morrow, at the party where she finds Kitty wearing her dead
mother's pearls, and even takes hold of her in a way that makes
the reader hope she is going to shake her, she is delightful; and
when Kitty complains that Mary has "pinched" her, she is
adorable. One is really in love with her for the moment; and in
that moment of nature the thick air of good society seems to blow
away and let one breathe freely. The bad people in the book are
better than the good people, and the good people are best in
their worst tempers. They are so exclusively well born and well
bred that the fitness of the medical student, Blount, for their
society can be ascertained only by his reference to a New England
ancestry of the high antiquity that can excuse even dubious cuffs
and finger-nails in a descendant of good principles and generous

The psychological problem studied in the book with such artistic
fineness and scientific thoroughness is personally a certain Mrs.
Hunter, who manages through the weak-minded and selfish Kitty
Morrow to work her way to authority in the household of Kitty's
uncle, where she displaces Mary Fairthorne, and makes the place
odious to all the kith and kin of Kitty. Intellectually, she is
a clever woman, or rather, she is a woman of great cunning that
rises at times to sagacity; but she is limited by a bad heart and
an absence of conscience. She is bold up to a point, and then
she is timid; she will go to lengths, but not to all lengths; and
when it comes to poisoning Fairthorne to keep him from changing
his mind about the bequest he has made her, she has not quite the
courage of her convictions. She hesitates and does not do it,
and it is in this point she becomes so aesthetically successful.
The guilt of the uncommitted crimes is more important than the
guilt of those which have been committed; and the author does a
good thing morally as well as artistically in leaving Mrs. Hunter
still something of a problem to his reader. In most things she
is almost too plain a case; she is sly, and vulgar, and depraved
and cruel; she is all that a murderess should be; but, in
hesitating at murder, she becomes and remains a mystery, and the
reader does not get rid of her as he would if she had really done
the deed. In the inferior exigencies she strikes fearlessly; and
when the man who has divorced her looms up in her horizon with
doom in his presence, she goes and makes love to him. She is not
the less successful because she disgusts him; he agrees to let
her alone so long as she does no mischief; she has, at least,
made him unwilling to feel himself her persecutor, and that is
enough for her.

Mrs. Hunter is a study of extreme interest in degeneracy, but I
am not sure that Kitty Morrow is not a rarer contribution to
knowledge. Of course, that sort of selfish girl has always been
known, but she has not met the open recognition which constitutes
knowledge, and so she has the preciousness of a find. She is at
once tiresome and vivacious; she is cold-hearted but not
cold-blooded, and when she lets herself go in an outburst of
passion for the celibate young ritualist, Knellwood, she becomes
fascinating. She does not let herself go without having assured
herself that he loves her, and somehow one is not shocked at her
making love to him; one even wishes that she had won him. I am
not sure but the case would have been a little truer if she had
won him, but as it is I am richly content with it. Perhaps I am
the more content because in the case of Kitty Morrow I find a
concession to reality more entire than the case of Mrs. Hunter.
She is of the heredity from which you would expect her depravity;
but Kitty Morrow, who lets herself go so recklessly, is, for all
one knows, as well born and as well bred as those other
Philadelphians. In my admiration of her, as a work of art,
however, I must not fail of justice to the higher beauty of Mary
Fairthorne's character. She is really a good girl, and saved
from the unreality which always threatens goodness in fiction by
those limitations of temper which I have already hinted.


It is far from the ambient of any of these imaginary lives to
that of the half-caste heroine of "A Japanese Nightingale" and
the young American whom she marries in one of those marriages
which neither the Oriental nor the Occidental expects to last
till death parts them. It is far, and all is very strange under
that remote sky; but what is true to humanity anywhere is true
everywhere; and the story of Yuki and Bigelow, as the Japanese
author tells it in very choice English, is of as palpitant
actuality as any which should treat of lovers next door. If I
have ever read any record of young married love that was so
frank, so sweet, so pure, I do not remember it. Yet, Yuki,
though she loves Bigelow, does not marry him because she loves
him, but because she wishes with the money he gives her to help
her brother through college in America. When this brother comes
back to Japan--he is the touch of melodrama in the pretty
idyl--he is maddened by an acquired Occidental sense of his
sister's disgrace in her marriage, and falls into a fever and
dies out of the story, which closes with the lasting happiness of
the young wife and husband. There is enough incident, but of the
kind that is characterized and does not characterize. The charm,
the delight, the supreme interest is in the personality of Yuki.
Her father was an Englishman who had married her mother in the
same sort of marriage she makes herself; but he is true to his
wife till he dies, and possibly something of the English
constancy which is not always so evident as in his case qualifies
the daughter's nature. Her mother was, of course, constant, and
Yuki, though an outcast from her own people--the conventions seen
to be as imperative in Tokyo as in Philadelphia--because of her
half-caste origin, is justly Japanese in what makes her
loveliest. There is a quite indescribable freshness in the art
of this pretty novelette--it is hardly of the dimensions of a
novel--which is like no other art except in the simplicity which
is native to the best art everywhere. Yuki herself is of a
surpassing lovableness. Nothing but the irresistible charm of
the American girl could, I should think keep the young men who
read Mrs. Watana's book from going out and marrying Japanese
girls. They are safe from this, however, for the reason
suggested, and therefore it can be safely commended at least to
young men intending fiction, as such a lesson in the art of
imitating nature as has not come under my hand for a long while.
It has its little defects, but its directness, and sincerity, and
its felicity through the sparing touch make me unwilling to note
them. In fact, I have forgotten them.


I wish that I could at all times praise as much the literature of
an author who speaks for another colored race, not so far from us
as the Japanese, but of as much claim upon our conscience, if not
our interest. Mr. Chesnutt, it seems to me, has lost literary
quality in acquiring literary quantity, and though his book, "The
Marrow of Tradition," is of the same strong material as his
earlier books, it is less simple throughout, and therefore less
excellent in manner. At his worst, he is no worse than the
higher average of the ordinary novelist, but he ought always to
be very much better, for he began better, and he is of that race
which has, first of all, to get rid of the cakewalk, if it will
not suffer from a smile far more blighting than any frown. He is
fighting a battle, and it is not for him to pick up the cheap
graces and poses of the jouster. He does, indeed, cast them all
from him when he gets down to his work, and in the dramatic
climaxes and closes of his story he shortens his weapons and
deals his blows so absolutely without flourish that I have
nothing but admiration for him. "The Marrow of Tradition," like
everything else he has written, has to do with the relations of
the blacks and whites, and in that republic of letters where all
men are free and equal he stands up for his own people with a
courage which has more justice than mercy in it. The book is, in
fact, bitter, bitter. There is no reason in history why it
should not be so, if wrong is to be repaid with hate, and yet it
would be better if it was not so bitter. I am not saying that he
is so inartistic as to play the advocate; whatever his minor
foibles may be, he is an artist whom his stepbrother Americans
may well be proud of; but while he recognizes pretty well all the
facts in the case, he is too clearly of a judgment that is made
up. One cannot blame him for that; what would one be one's self?
If the tables could once be turned, and it could be that it was
the black race which violently and lastingly triumphed in the
bloody revolution at Wilmington, North Carolina, a few years ago,
what would not we excuse to the white man who made the atrocity
the argument of his fiction?

Mr. Chesnutt goes far back of the historic event in his novel,
and shows us the sources of the cataclysm which swept away a
legal government and perpetuated an insurrection, but he does not
paint the blacks all good, or the whites all bad. He paints them
as slavery made them on both sides, and if in the very end he
gives the moral victory to the blacks--if he suffers the daughter
of the black wife to have pity on her father's daughter by his
white wife, and while her own child lies dead from a shot fired
in the revolt, gives her husband's skill to save the life of her
sister's child--it cannot be said that either his aesthetics or
ethics are false. Those who would question either must allow, at
least, that the negroes have had the greater practice in
forgiveness, and that there are many probabilities to favor his
interpretation of the fact. No one who reads the book can deny
that the case is presented with great power, or fail to recognize
in the writer a portent of the sort of negro equality against
which no series of hangings and burnings will finally avail.


In Mr. Chesnutt's novel the psychologism is of that universal
implication which will distinguish itself to the observer from
the psychologism of that more personal sort--the words are not as
apt as I should like--evident in some of the interesting books
under notice here. I have tried to say that it is none the less
a work of art for that reason, and I can praise the art of
another novel, in which the same sort of psychologism prevails,
though I must confess it a fiction of the rankest
tendenciousness. "Lay Down Your Arms" is the name of the English
version of the Baroness von Suttner's story, "Die Waffen Nieder,"
which has become a watchword with the peacemakers on the
continent of Europe. Its success there has been very great, and
I wish its success on the continent of America could be so great
that it might replace in the hands of our millions the baleful
books which have lately been glorifying bloodshed in the private
and public wars of the past, if not present. The wars which "Lay
Down Your Arms" deals with are not quite immediate, and yet they
are not so far off historically, either. They are the
Franco-Austrian war of 1859, the Austro-Prussian war of 1866, and
the Franco-German war of 1870; and the heroine whose personal
relation makes them live so cruelly again is a young Austrian
lady of high birth. She is the daughter and the sister of
soldiers, and when the handsome young officer, of equal rank with
her own, whom she first marries, makes love to her just before
the outbreak of the war first named, she is as much in love with
his soldiership as with himself. But when the call to arms
comes, it strikes to her heart such a sense of war as she has
never known before. He is killed in one of the battles of Italy,
and after a time she marries another soldier, not such a beau
sabreur as the first, but a mature and thoughtful man, who fights
through that second war from a sense of duty rather than from
love of fighting, and comes out of it with such abhorrence that
he quits the army and goes with his family to live in Paris.
There the third war overtakes him, and in the siege, this
Austrian, who has fought the Prussians to the death, is arrested
by the communards as a Prussian spy and shot.

The bare outline of the story gives, of course, no just notion of
the intense passion of grief which fills it. Neither does it
convey a due impression of the character in the different persons
which, amidst the heartbreak, is ascertained with some such truth
and impartiality as pervade the effects of "War and Peace." I do
not rank it with that work, but in its sincerity and veracity it
easily ranks above any other novel treating of war which I know,
and it ought to do for the German peoples what the novels of
Erckmann-Chatrian did for the French, in at least one generation.
Will it do anything for the Anglo-Saxon peoples? Probably not
till we have pacified the Philippines and South Africa. We
Americans are still apparently in love with fighting, though the
English are apparently not so much so; and as it is always well
to face the facts, I will transfer to my page some facts of
fighting from this graphic book, which the read may apply to the
actualities in the Philippines, with a little imagination. They
are taken from a letter written to the heroine by her second
husband after one of the Austrian defeats. "The people poured
boiling water and oil on the Prussians from the windows of the
houses at ----.... The village is ours--no, it is the enemy's,
now ours again--and yet once more the enemy's; but it is no
longer a village, but a smoking mass of ruins of houses....One
family has remained behind...an old married couple and their
daughter, the latter in childbed. The husband is serving in our
regiment.... Poor devil! he got there just in time to see the
mother and child die; a shell had exploded under their bed.... I
saw a breastwork there which was formed of corpses. The
defenders had heaped all the slain who were lying near, in order,
from that rampart, to fire over at their assailants. I shall
surely never forget that wall in my life. A man who formed one
of its bricks was still alive, and was waving his arm.... What
is happening there? The execution party is drawn out. Has a spy
been caught? Seventeen this time. There they come, in four
ranks, each one of four men, surrounded by a square of soldiers.
The condemned men step out, with their heads down. Behind comes
a cart with a corpse in it, and bound to the corpse the dead
man's son, a boy of twelve, also condemned.... Steep, rocky
heights; Jaegers, nimble as cats, climbing up them.... Some of
them, who are hit by the enemy's shot, suddenly stretch out both
their arms, let their muskets fall, and, with their heads falling
backwards, drop off the height, step by step, from one rocky
point to another, smashing their limbs to pieces. I saw a
horseman at some distance, obliquely behind me, at whose side a
shell burst. His horse swerved aside and came against the tail
of mind, then shot past me. The man sat still in the saddle, but
a fragment of the shell had ripped his belly open and torn out
all the intestines. The upper part of his body was held to the
lower only by the spine. From the ribs to the thighs nothing but
one great, bleeding cavity. A short distance farther he fell to
the ground, one foot still clinging in the stirrup, and the
galloping horse dragging him on over the stony soil.... Another
street fight in the little town of Saar.... In the middle of the
square stands a high pillar of the Virgin. The mother of God
holds her child in one arm, and stretches the other out in
blessing.... Here the fight was prolonged, man to man. They
were hacking at me, I laying about me on all sides.... A
Prussian dragoon, strong as Goliath, tore one of our officers (a
pretty, dandified lieutenant--how many girls are, perhaps, mad
after him?) out of his saddle and split his skull at the feet of
the Virgin's pillar. The gentle saint looked on unmoved.
Another of the enemy's dragoons--a Goliath, too--seized, just
before me almost, my right-hand man, and bent him backwards in
his saddle so powerfully that he broke his back--I myself heard
it crack. To this the Madonna gave her blessing also."


It can be said that these incidents of battle are imagined, like
the facts of Vereschagin's pictures, but like these they are
imagined rather below than above the real horror of war, and
represent them inadequately. The incidents of another book, the
last on my list, are of the warfare which goes on in times of
peace, and which will go on as long as there are human passions,
and mankind are divided into men and women, and saints and
sinners. Of all the books on my list, "Let Not Man Put Asunder"
is, narrowing the word to the recognition of the author's
intellectual alertness and vividness, the cleverest. The story
is of people who constantly talk so wonderfully well beyond the
wont even of society people that the utmost skill of the author,
who cannot subdue their brilliancy, is needed to make us feel
their reality. But he does make us feel this in most cases, the
important cases, and in the other cases his power of interesting
us is so great that we do not stop to examine the grounds of our
sensation, or to question the validity of our emotions. The
action, which is positively of to-day, or yesterday at the
furthest, passes in Boston and England, among people of such
great fortune and high rank and transcendent fashion that the
proudest reader cannot complain of their social quality. As to
their moral quality, one might have thought the less said the
better, if the author had not said so much that is pertinent and
impressive. It is from first to last a book with a conscience in
it, and its highest appeal is to the conscience. It is so very
nearly a great book, so very nearly a true book, that it is with
a kind of grief one recognizes its limitations, a kind of
surprise at its shortcomings, which, nevertheless, are not
shortcomings that impair its supreme effect. This, I take it, is
the intimation of a mystical authority in marriage against which
divorce sins in vain, which no recreancy can subvert, and by
virtue of which it claims eternally its own the lovers united in
it; though they seem to become haters, it cannot release them to
happiness in a new union through any human law.

If the author had done dramatically (and his doing is mainly
dramatic) no more than this, he would have established his right
to be taken seriously, but he has done very much more, and has
made us acquainted with types and characters which we do not
readily forget, and with characters much more real than their
ambient. For instance, the Old Cambridge in which the Vassalls
live is not the Old Cambridge of fact, but the Vassalls are the
Vassalls of fact, though the ancestral halls in which they dwell
are of a baroniality difficult of verification. Their honor,
their righteousness, their purity are veracious, though their
social state is magnified beyond any post-revolutionary
experience. The social Boston of the novel is more like; its
difference from an older Boston is sensitively felt, and finely
suggested, especially on the side of that greater lawlessness in
which it is not the greater Boston. Petrina Faneuil, the
heroine, is derivatively of the older Boston which has passed
away, and actually of the newer Boston which will not be so much
regretted when it passes, the fast Boston, the almost rowdy
Boston, the decadent Boston. It is, of course, a Boston much
worse in the report than in the fact, but it is not unimaginably
bad to the student who notes that the lapse from any high ideals
is to a level lower than that of people who have never had them.
As for Petrina herself, who was in Boston more than of it, she is
so admirably analyzed in the chapter devoted to the task that I
am tempted to instance it as the best piece of work in the book,
though it does not make one hold one's breath like some of the
dramatic episodes: "Whatever religious instinct had been in the
family had spent itself at least two generations before her time.
She was a pagan--a tolerant, indifferent, slightly scornful
pagan.... But she was none the less a Puritan. Certain of her
ways of thought and habits of life, had survived the beliefs
which had given them birth, as an effect will often outlive its
cause. If she was a pagan, she was a serious one, a pagan with a
New England conscience."

This is mighty well said, and the like things that are said of
Petrina's sister-in-law, who has married an English title, are
mighty well, too. "She had inherited a countenance whose
expression was like the light which lingers in the sky long after
sunset--the light of some ancestral fire gone out. If in her
face there were prayers, they had been said by Pepperells and
Vassalls now sleeping in Massachusetts churchyards. If in her
voice there were tears, they had been shed by those who would
weep no more. She mirrored the emotions she had never felt; and
all that was left of joys and sorrows and spiritual aspirations
which had once thrilled human hearts was in that plaintive echo
they had given to this woman's tone, and the light of petition
they had left burning in her eyes."

No one who reads such passages can deny that the author of "Let
Not Man Put Asunder" can think subtly as well as say clearly, and
the book abounds in proofs of his ability to portray human nature
in its lighter aspects. Lady de Bohun, with her pathetic face,
is a most amusing creature, with all her tragedy, and she is on
the whole the most perfectly characterized personality in the
story. The author gives you a real sense of her beauty, her
grace, her being always charmingly in a hurry and always late.
The greatest scene is hers: the scene in which she meets her
divorced husband with his second wife. One may suspect some of
the other scenes, but one must accept that scene as one of
genuine dramatic worth. Too much of the drama in the book is
theatre rather than drama, and yet the author's gift is
essentially dramatic. He knows how to tell a story on his stage
that holds you to the fall of the curtain, and makes you almost
patient of the muted violins and the limelight of the closing
scene. Such things, you say, do not happen in Brookline, Mass.,
whatever happens in London or in English country houses; and yet
the people have at one time or other convinced you of their
verity. Of the things that are not natural, you feel like saying
that they are supernatural rather than unnatural, and you own
that at its worst the book is worth while in a time when most
novels are not worth while.


"The Right of Way." A Novel. By Gilbert Parker. Harper & Brothers.

"The Ruling Passion. Tales of nature and human nature." By Henry
Van Dyke. Charles Scribner's Sons.

"Spoils and Stratagems Stories of love and politics." By Wm.
Allen White. Charles Scribner's Sons.

"Foma Gordyeeff." By Maxim Gorky. Translated from the Russian by
Isabel F. Hapgood. Charles Scribner's Sons.

"Circumstances." By S. Weir Mitchell, M.D. The Century Company.

"A Japanese Nightingale." By Onoto Watana. Harper & Brothers.

"The Marrow of Tradition." By Charles W. Chesnutt. Houghton,
Mifflin & Co.

"Lay Down Your Arms. The autobiography of Martha von Tilling."
By Bertha von Suttner. Authorized Translation. By T. Holmes.
Longmans, Green & Co.

"Let Not Man Put Asunder." By Basil King. Harper & Brothers.


Back to Full Books