Literature and Life, Entire
William Dean Howells

Part 8 out of 9

division in texture and color. The book was undoubtedly a favorite of
mine, and I did not see then the artistic falterings in it which were
afterwards evident to me.

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


By William Dean Howells

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


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


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

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

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

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

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


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


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


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

"So dyed double red"

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

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


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


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

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


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

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


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

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

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

Then, are we critics of no use in the world? I should not like to think
that, though I am not quite ready to define our use. More than one sober
thinker is inclining at present to suspect that aesthetically or
specifically we are of no use, and that we are only useful historically;
that we may register laws, but not enact them. I am not quite prepared
to admit that aesthetic criticism is useless, though in view of its
futility in any given instance it is hard to deny that it is so.
It certainly seems as useless against a book that strikes the popular
fancy, and prospers on in spite of condemnation by the best critics,
as it is against a book which does not generally please, and which no
critical favor can make acceptable. This is so common a phenomenon that
I wonder it has never hitherto suggested to criticism that its point of
view was altogether mistaken, and that it was really necessary to judge
books not as dead things, but as living things--things which have an
influence and a power irrespective of beauty and wisdom, and merely as
expressions of actuality in thought and feeling. Perhaps criticism has a
cumulative and final effect; perhaps it does some good we do not know of.
It apparently does not affect the author directly, but it may reach him
through the reader. It may in some cases enlarge or diminish his
audience for a while, until he has thoroughly measured and tested his own
powers. If criticism is to affect literature at all, it must be through
the writers who have newly left the starting-point, and are reasonably
uncertain of the race, not with those who have won it again and again in
their own way.


Sometimes it has seemed to me that the crudest expression of any creative
art is better than the finest comment upon it. I have sometimes
suspected that more thinking, more feeling certainly, goes to the
creation of a poor novel than to the production of a brilliant criticism;
and if any novel of our time fails to live a hundred years, will any
censure of it live? Who can endure to read old reviews? One can hardly
read them if they are in praise of one's own books.

The author neglected or overlooked need not despair for that reason, if
he will reflect that criticism can neither make nor unmake authors; that
there have not been greater books since criticism became an art than
there were before; that in fact the greatest books seem to have come much

That which criticism seems most certainly to have done is to have put a
literary consciousness into books unfelt in the early masterpieces,
but unfelt now only in the books of men whose lives have been passed in
activities, who have been used to employing language as they would have
employed any implement, to effect an object, who have regarded a thing to
be said as in no wise different from a thing to be done. In this sort I
have seen no modern book so unconscious as General Grant's 'Personal
Memoirs.' The author's one end and aim is to get the facts out in words.
He does not cast about for phrases, but takes the word, whatever it is,
that will best give his meaning, as if it were a man or a force of men
for the accomplishment of a feat of arms. There is not a moment wasted
in preening and prettifying, after the fashion of literary men; there is
no thought of style, and so the style is good as it is in the 'Book of
Chronicles,' as it is in the 'Pilgrim's Progress,' with a peculiar,
almost plebeian, plainness at times. There is no more attempt at
dramatic effect than there is at ceremonious pose; things happen in that
tale of a mighty war as they happened in the mighty war itself, without
setting, without artificial reliefs one after another, as if they were
all of one quality and degree. Judgments are delivered with the same
unimposing quiet; no awe surrounds the tribunal except that which comes
from the weight and justice of the opinions; it is always an unaffected,
unpretentious man who is talking; and throughout he prefers to wear the
uniform of a private, with nothing of the general about him but the
shoulder-straps, which he sometimes forgets.


Canon Fairfax,'s opinions of literary criticism are very much to my
liking, perhaps because when I read them I found them so like my own,
already delivered in print. He tells the critics that "they are in no
sense the legislators of literature, barely even its judges and police";
and he reminds them of Mr. Ruskin's saying that "a bad critic is probably
the most mischievous person in the world," though a sense of their
relative proportion to the whole of life would perhaps acquit the worst
among them of this extreme of culpability. A bad critic is as bad a
thing as can be, but, after all, his mischief does not carry very far.
Otherwise it would be mainly the conventional books and not the original
books which would survive; for the censor who imagines himself a law-
giver can give law only to the imitative and never to the creative mind.
Criticism has condemned whatever was, from time to time, fresh and vital
in literature; it has always fought the new good thing in behalf of the
old good thing; it has invariably fostered and encouraged the tame, the
trite, the negative. Yet upon the whole it is the native, the novel, the
positive that has survived in literature. Whereas, if bad criticism were
the most mischievous thing in the world, in the full implication of the
words, it must have been the tame, the trite, the negative, that

Bad criticism is mischievous enough, however; and I think that much if
not most current criticism as practised among the English and Americans
is bad, is falsely principled, and is conditioned in evil. It is falsely
principled because it is unprincipled, or without principles; and it is
conditioned in evil because it is almost wholly anonymous. At the best
its opinions are not conclusions from certain easily verifiable
principles, but are effects from the worship of certain models. They are
in so far quite worthless, for it is the very nature of things that the
original mind cannot conform to models; it has its norm within itself; it
can work only in its own way, and by its self-given laws. Criticism does
not inquire whether a work is true to life, but tacitly or explicitly
compares it with models, and tests it by them. If literary art travelled
by any such road as criticism would have it go, it would travel in a
vicious circle, and would arrive only at the point of departure. Yet
this is the course that criticism must always prescribe when it attempts
to give laws. Being itself artificial, it cannot conceive of the
original except as the abnormal. It must altogether reconceive its
office before it can be of use to literature. It must reduce this to the
business of observing, recording, and comparing; to analyzing the
material before it, and then synthetizing its impressions. Even then, it
is not too much to say that literature as an art could get on perfectly
well without it. Just as many good novels, poems, plays, essays,
sketches, would be written if there were no such thing as criticism in
the literary world, and no more bad ones.

But it will be long before criticism ceases to imagine itself a
controlling force, to give itself airs of sovereignty, and to issue
decrees. As it exists it is mostly a mischief, though not the greatest
mischief; but it may be greatly ameliorated in character and softened in
manner by the total abolition of anonymity.

I think it would be safe to say that in no other relation of life is so
much brutality permitted by civilized society as in the criticism of
literature and the arts. Canon Farrar is quite right in reproaching
literary criticism with the uncandor of judging an author without
reference to his aims; with pursuing certain writers from spite and
prejudice, and mere habit; with misrepresenting a book by quoting a
phrase or passage apart from the context; with magnifying misprints and
careless expressions into important faults; with abusing an author for
his opinions; with base and personal motives.

Every writer of experience knows that certain critical journals will
condemn his work without regard to its quality, even if it has never been
his fortune to learn, as one author did from a repentent reviewer, that
in a journal pretending to literary taste his books were given out for
review with the caution, "Remember that the Clarion is opposed to Mr.
Blank's books."

The final conclusion appears to be that the man, or even the young lady,
who is given a gun, and told to shoot at some passer from behind a hedge,
is placed in circumstances of temptation almost too strong for human


As I have already intimated, I doubt the more lasting effects of unjust
criticism. It is no part of my belief that Keats's fame was long delayed
by it, or Wordsworth's, or Browning's. Something unwonted, unexpected,
in the quality of each delayed his recognition; each was not only a poet,
he was a revolution, a new order of things, to which the critical
perceptions and habitudes had painfully to adjust themselves: But I have
no question of the gross and stupid injustice with which these great men
were used, and of the barbarization of the public mind by the sight of
the wrong inflicted on them with impunity. This savage condition still
persists in the toleration of anonymous criticism, an abuse that ought to
be as extinct as the torture of witnesses. It is hard enough to treat a
fellow-author with respect even when one has to address him, name to
name, upon the same level, in plain day; swooping down upon him in the
dark, panoplied in the authority of a great journal, it is impossible.
Every now and then some idealist comes forward and declares that you
should say nothing in criticism of a man's book which you would not say
of it to his face. But I am afraid this is asking too much. I am afraid
it would put an end to all criticism; and that if it were practised
literature would be left to purify itself. I have no doubt literature
would do this; but in such a state of things there would be no provision
for the critics. We ought not to destroy critics, we ought to reform
them, or rather transform them, or turn them from the assumption of
authority to a realization of their true function in the civilized state.
They are no worse at heart, probably, than many others, and there are
probably good husbands and tender fathers, loving daughters and careful
mothers, among them.

It is evident to any student of human nature that the critic who is
obliged to sign his review will be more careful of an author's feelings
than he would if he could intangibly and invisibly deal with him as the
representative of a great journal. He will be loath to have his name
connected with those perversions and misstatements of an author's meaning
in which the critic now indulges without danger of being turned out of
honest company. He will be in some degree forced to be fair and just
with a book he dislikes; he will not wish to misrepresent it when his sin
can be traced directly to him in person; he will not be willing to voice
the prejudice of a journal which is "opposed to the books" of this or
that author; and the journal itself, when it is no longer responsible for
the behavior of its critic, may find it interesting and profitable to
give to an author his innings when he feels wronged by a reviewer and
desires to right himself; it may even be eager to offer him the
opportunity. We shall then, perhaps, frequently witness the spectacle of
authors turning upon their reviewers, and improving their manners and
morals by confronting them in public with the errors they may now commit
with impunity. Many an author smarts under injuries and indignities
which he might resent to the advantage of literature and civilization,
if he were not afraid of being browbeaten by the journal whose nameless
critic has outraged him.

The public is now of opinion that it involves loss of dignity to creative
talent to try to right itself if wronged, but here we are without the
requisite statistics. Creative talent may come off with all the dignity
it went in with, and it may accomplish a very good work in demolishing

In any other relation of life the man who thinks himself wronged tries to
right himself, violently, if he is a mistaken man, and lawfully if he is
a wise man or a rich one, which is practically the same thing. But the
author, dramatist, painter, sculptor, whose book, play, picture, statue,
has been unfairly dealt with, as he believes, must make no effort to
right himself with the public; he must bear his wrong in silence; he is
even expected to grin and bear it, as if it were funny. Every body
understands that it is not funny to him, not in the least funny, but
everybody says that he cannot make an effort to get the public to take
his point of view without loss of dignity. This is very odd, but it is
the fact, and I suppose that it comes from the feeling that the author,
dramatist, painter, sculptor, has already said the best he can for his
side in his book, play, picture, statue. This is partly true, and yet if
he wishes to add something more to prove the critic wrong, I do not see
how his attempt to do so should involve loss of dignity. The public,
which is so jealous for his dignity, does not otherwise use him as if he
were a very great and invaluable creature; if he fails, it lets him
starve like any one else. I should say that he lost dignity or not as he
behaved, in his effort to right himself, with petulance or with
principle. If he betrayed a wounded vanity, if he impugned the motives
and accused the lives of his critics, I should certainly feel that he was
losing dignity; but if he temperately examined their theories, and tried
to show where they were mistaken, I think he would not only gain dignity,
but would perform a very useful work.


I would beseech the literary critics of our country to disabuse
themselves of the mischievous notion that they are essential to the
progress of literature in the way critics have imagined. Canon Farrar
confesses that with the best will in the world to profit by the many
criticisms of his books, he has never profited in the least by any of
them; and this is almost the universal experience of authors. It is not
always the fault of the critics. They sometimes deal honestly and fairly
by a book, and not so often they deal adequately. But in making a book,
if it is at all a good book, the author has learned all that is knowable
about it, and every strong point and every weak point in it, far more
accurately than any one else can possibly learn them. He has learned to
do better than well for the future; but if his book is bad, he cannot be
taught anything about it from the outside. It will perish; and if he has
not the root of literature in him, he will perish as an author with it.
But what is it that gives tendency in art, then? What is it makes people
like this at one time, and that at another? Above all, what makes a
better fashion change for a worse; how can the ugly come to be preferred
to the beautiful; in other words, how can an art decay?

This question came up in my mind lately with regard to English fiction
and its form, or rather its formlessness. How, for instance, could
people who had once known the simple verity, the refined perfection of
Miss Austere, enjoy, anything less refined and less perfect?

With her example before them, why should not English novelists have gone
on writing simply, honestly, artistically, ever after? One would think
it must have been impossible for them to do otherwise, if one did not
remember, say, the lamentable behavior of the actors who support Mr.
Jefferson, and their theatricality in the very presence of his beautiful
naturalness. It is very difficult, that simplicity, and nothing is so
hard as to be honest, as the reader, if he has ever happened to try it,
must know. "The big bow-wow I can do myself, like anyone going," said
Scott, but he owned that the exquisite touch of Miss Austere was denied
him; and it seems certainly to have been denied in greater or less
measure to all her successors. But though reading and writing come by
nature, as Dogberry justly said, a taste in them may be cultivated, or
once cultivated, it may be preserved; and why was it not so among those
poor islanders? One does not ask such things in order to be at the pains
of answering them one's self, but with the hope that some one else will
take the trouble to do so, and I propose to be rather a silent partner in
the enterprise, which I shall leave mainly to Senor Armando Palacio
Valdes. This delightful author will, however, only be able to answer my
question indirectly from the essay on fiction with which he prefaces one
of his novels, the charming story of 'The Sister of San Sulpizio,' and I
shall have some little labor in fitting his saws to my instances. It is
an essay which I wish every one intending to read, or even to write, a
novel, might acquaint himself with; for it contains some of the best and
clearest things which have been said of the art of fiction in a time when
nearly all who practise it have turned to talk about it.

Senor Valdes is a realist, but a realist according to his own conception
of realism; and he has some words of just censure for the French
naturalists, whom he finds unnecessarily, and suspects of being sometimes
even mercenarily, nasty. He sees the wide difference that passes between
this naturalism and the realism of the English and Spanish; and he goes
somewhat further than I should go in condemning it. "The French
naturalism represents only a moment, and an insignificant part of life."
. . . It is characterized by sadness and narrowness. The prototype of
this literature is the 'Madame Bovary' of Flaubert. I am an admirer of
this novelist, and especially of this novel; but often in thinking of it
I have said, How dreary would literature be if it were no more than this!
There is something antipathetic and gloomy and limited in it, as there is
in modern French life; but this seems to me exactly the best possible
reason for its being. I believe with Senor Valdes that "no literature
can live long without joy," not because of its mistaken aesthetics,
however, but because no civilization can live long without joy. The
expression of French life will change when French life changes; and
French naturalism is better at its worst than French unnaturalism at its
best. "No one," as Senor Valdes truly says, "can rise from the perusal
of a naturalistic book . . . without a vivid desire to escape" from
the wretched world depicted in it, "and a purpose, more or less vague,
of helping to better the lot and morally elevate the abject beings who
figure in it. Naturalistic art, then, is not immoral in itself, for then
it would not merit the name of art; for though it is not the business of
art to preach morality, still I think that, resting on a divine and
spiritual principle, like the idea of the beautiful, it is perforce
moral. I hold much more immoral other books which, under a glamour of
something spiritual and beautiful and sublime, portray the vices in which
we are allied to the beasts. Such, for example, are the works of Octave
Feuillet, Arsene Houssaye, Georges Ohnet, and other contemporary
novelists much in vogue among the higher classes of society."

But what is this idea of the beautiful which art rests upon, and so
becomes moral? "The man of our time," says Senor Valdes, "wishes to know
everything and enjoy everything: he turns the objective of a powerful
equatorial towards the heavenly spaces where gravitates the infinitude of
the stars, just as he applies the microscope to the infinitude of the
smallest insects; for their laws are identical. His experience, united
with intuition, has convinced him that in nature there is neither great
nor small; all is equal. All is equally grand, all is equally just, all
is equally beautiful, because all is equally divine." But beauty, Senor
Valdes explains, exists in the human spirit, and is the beautiful effect
which it receives from the true meaning of things; it does not matter
what the things are, and it is the function of the artist who feels this
effect to impart it to others. I may add that there is no joy in art
except this perception of the meaning of things and its communication;
when you have felt it, and portrayed it in a poem, a symphony, a novel,
a statue, a picture, an edifice, you have fulfilled the purpose for which
you were born an artist.

The reflection of exterior nature in the individual spirit, Senor Valdes
believes to be the fundamental of art. "To say, then, that the artist
must not copy but create is nonsense, because he can in no wise copy, and
in no wise create. He who sets deliberately about modifying nature,
shows that he has not felt her beauty, and therefore cannot make others
feel it. The puerile desire which some artists without genius manifest
to go about selecting in nature, not what seems to them beautiful, but
what they think will seem beautiful to others, and rejecting what may
displease them, ordinarily produces cold and insipid works. For, instead
of exploring the illimitable fields of reality, they cling to the forms
invented by other artists who have succeeded, and they make statues of
statues, poems of poems, novels of novels. It is entirely false that the
great romantic, symbolic, or classic poets modified nature; such as they
have expressed her they felt her; and in this view they are as much
realists as ourselves. In like manner if in the realistic tide that now
bears us on there are some spirits who feel nature in another way, in the
romantic way, or the classic way, they would not falsify her in
expressing her so. Only those falsify her who, without feeling classic
wise or romantic wise, set about being classic or romantic, wearisomely
reproducing the models of former ages; and equally those who, without
sharing the sentiment of realism, which now prevails, force themselves to
be realists merely to follow the fashion."

The pseudo-realists, in fact, are the worse offenders, to my thinking,
for they sin against the living; whereas those who continue to celebrate
the heroic adventures of "Puss-in-Boots" and the hair-breadth escapes of
"Tom Thumb," under various aliases, only cast disrespect upon the
immortals who have passed beyond these noises.


"The principal cause," our Spaniard says, "of the decadence of
contemporary literature is found, to my thinking, in the vice which has
been very graphically called effectism, or the itch of awaking at all
cost in the reader vivid and violent emotions, which shall do credit to
the invention and originality of the writer. This vice has its roots in
human nature itself, and more particularly in that of the artist; he has
always some thing feminine in him, which tempts him to coquet with the
reader, and display qualities that he thinks will astonish him, as women
laugh for no reason, to show their teeth when they have them white and
small and even, or lift their dresses to show their feet when there is no
mud in the street . . . . What many writers nowadays wish, is to
produce an effect, grand and immediate, to play the part of geniuses.
For this they have learned that it is only necessary to write exaggerated
works in any sort, since the vulgar do not ask that they shall be quietly
made to think and feel, but that they shall be startled; and among the
vulgar, of course, I include the great part of those who write literary
criticism, and who constitute the worst vulgar, since they teach what
they do not know .. . . There are many persons who suppose that the
highest proof an artist can give of his fantasy is the invention of a
complicated plot, spiced with perils, surprises, and suspenses; and that
anything else is the sign of a poor and tepid imagination. And not only
people who seem cultivated, but are not so, suppose this, but there are
sensible persons, and even sagacious and intelligent critics, who
sometimes allow themselves to be hoodwinked by the dramatic mystery and
the surprising and fantastic scenes of a novel. They own it is all
false; but they admire the imagination, what they call the 'power' of the
author. Very well; all I have to say is that the 'power' to dazzle with
strange incidents, to entertain with complicated plots and impossible
characters, now belongs to some hundreds of writers in Europe; while
there are not much above a dozen who know how to interest with the
ordinary events of life, and by the portrayal of characters truly human.
If the former is a talent, it must be owned that it is much commoner than
the latter . . . . If we are to rate novelists according to their
fecundity, or the riches of their invention, we must put Alexander Dumas
above Cervantes. Cervantes wrote a novel with the simplest plot, without
belying much or little the natural and logical course of events. This
novel which was called 'Don Quixote,' is perhaps the greatest work of
human wit. Very well; the same Cervantes, mischievously influenced
afterwards by the ideas of the vulgar, who were then what they are now
and always will be, attempted to please them by a work giving a lively
proof of his inventive talent, and wrote the 'Persiles and Sigismunda,'
where the strange incidents, the vivid complications, the surprises, the
pathetic scenes, succeed one another so rapidly and constantly that it
really fatigues you . . . . But in spite of this flood of invention,
imagine," says Seflor Valdes, "the place that Cervantes would now occupy
in the heaven of art, if he had never written 'Don Quixote,'" but only
'Persiles and Sigismund!'

From the point of view of modern English criticism, which likes to be
melted, and horrified, and astonished, and blood-curdled, and goose-
fleshed, no less than to be "chippered up" in fiction, Senor Valdes were
indeed incorrigible. Not only does he despise the novel of complicated
plot, and everywhere prefer 'Don Quixote' to 'Persiles and Sigismunda,'
but he has a lively contempt for another class of novels much in favor
with the gentilities of all countries. He calls their writers "novelists
of the world," and he says that more than any others they have the rage
of effectism. "They do not seek to produce effect by novelty and
invention in plot . . . they seek it in character. For this end they
begin by deliberately falsifying human feelings, giving them a
paradoxical appearance completely inadmissible . . . . Love that
disguises itself as hate, incomparable energy under the cloak of
weakness, virginal innocence under the aspect of malice and impudence,
wit masquerading as folly, etc., etc. By this means they hope to make an
effect of which they are incapable through the direct, frank, and
conscientious study of character." He mentions Octave Feuillet as the
greatest offender in this sort among the French, and Bulwer among the
English; but Dickens is full of it (Boffin in 'Our Mutual Friend' will
suffice for all example), and most drama is witness of the result of this
effectism when allowed full play.

But what, then, if he is not pleased with Dumas, or with the effectists
who delight genteel people at all the theatres, and in most of the
romances, what, I ask, will satisfy this extremely difficult Spanish
gentleman? He would pretend, very little. Give him simple, lifelike
character; that is all he wants. "For me, the only condition of
character is that it be human, and that is enough. If I wished to know
what was human, I should study humanity."

But, Senor Valdes, Senor Valdes! Do not you know that this small
condition of yours implies in its fulfilment hardly less than the gift of
the whole earth? You merely ask that the character portrayed in fiction
be human; and you suggest that the novelist should study humanity if he
would know whether his personages are human. This appears to me the
cruelest irony, the most sarcastic affectation of humility. If you had
asked that character in fiction be superhuman, or subterhuman, or
preterhuman, or intrahuman, and had bidden the novelist go, not to
humanity, but the humanities, for the proof of his excellence, it would
have been all very easy. The books are full of those "creations," of
every pattern, of all ages, of both sexes; and it is so much handier to
get at books than to get at Men; and when you have portrayed "passion"
instead of feeling, and used "power" instead of common-sense, and shown
yourself a "genius" instead of an artist, the applause is so prompt and
the glory so cheap, that really anything else seems wickedly wasteful of
one's time. One may not make one's reader enjoy or suffer nobly, but one
may give him the kind of pleasure that arises from conjuring, or from a
puppet-show, or a modern stage-play, and leave him, if he is an old fool,
in the sort of stupor that comes from hitting the pipe; or if he is a
young fool, half crazed with the spectacle of qualities and impulses like
his own in an apotheosis of achievement and fruition far beyond any
earthly experience.

But apparently Senor Valdes would not think this any great artistic
result. "Things that appear ugliest in reality to the spectator who is
not an artist, are transformed into beauty and poetry when the spirit of
the artist possesses itself of them. We all take part every day in a
thousand domestic scenes, every day we see a thousand pictures in life,
that do not make any impression upon us, or if they make any it is one of
repugnance; but let the novelist come, and without betraying the truth,
but painting them as they appear to his vision, he produces a most
interesting work, whose perusal enchants us. That which in life left us
indifferent, or repelled us, in art delights us. Why? Simply because
the artist has made us see the idea that resides in it. Let not the
novelists, then, endeavor to add anything to reality, to turn it and
twist it, to restrict it. Since nature has endowed them with this
precious gift of discovering ideas in things, their work will be
beautiful if they paint these as they appear. But if the reality does
not impress them, in vain will they strive to make their work impress


Which brings us again, after this long way about, to Jane Austen and her
novels, and that troublesome question about them. She was great and they
were beautiful, because she and they were honest, and dealt with nature
nearly a hundred years ago as realism deals with it to-day. Realism is
nothing more and nothing less than the truthful treatment of material,
and Jane Austen was the first and the last of the English novelists to
treat material with entire truthfulness. Because she did this, she
remains the most artistic of the English novelists, and alone worthy to
be matched with the great Scandinavian and Slavic and Latin artists. It
is not a question of intellect, or not wholly that. The English have
mind enough; but they have not taste enough; or, rather, their taste has
been perverted by their false criticism, which is based upon personal
preference, and not upon, principle; which instructs a man to think that
what he likes is good, instead of teaching him first to distinguish what
is good before he likes it. The art of fiction, as Jane Austen knew it,
declined from her through Scott, and Bulwer, and Dickens, and Charlotte
Bronte, and Thackeray, and even George Eliot, because the mania of
romanticism had seized upon all Europe, and these great writers could not
escape the taint of their time; but it has shown few signs of recovery in
England, because English criticism, in the presence of the Continental
masterpieces, has continued provincial and special and personal, and has
expressed a love and a hate which had to do with the quality of the
artist rather than the character of his work. It was inevitable that in
their time the English romanticists should treat, as Senor Valdes says,
"the barbarous customs of the Middle Ages, softening and distorting them,
as Walter Scott and his kind did;" that they should "devote themselves to
falsifying nature, refining and subtilizing sentiment, and modifying
psychology after their own fancy," like Bulwer and Dickens, as well as
like Rousseau and Madame de Stael, not to mention Balzac, the worst of
all that sort at his worst. This was the natural course of the disease;
but it really seems as if it were their criticism that was to blame for
the rest: not, indeed, for the performance of this writer or that, for
criticism can never affect the actual doing of a thing; but for the
esteem in which this writer or that is held through the perpetuation of
false ideals. The only observer of English middle-class life since Jane
Austen worthy to be named with her was not George Eliot, who was first
ethical and then artistic, who transcended her in everything but the form
and method most essential to art, and there fell hopelessly below her.
It was Anthony Trollope who was most like her in simple honesty and
instinctive truth, as unphilosophized as the light of common day; but he
was so warped from a wholesome ideal as to wish at times to be like
Thackeray, and to stand about in his scene, talking it over with his
hands in his pockets, interrupting the action, and spoiling the illusion
in which alone the truth of art resides. Mainly, his instinct was too
much for his ideal, and with a low view of life in its civic relations
and a thoroughly bourgeois soul, he yet produced works whose beauty is
surpassed only by the effect of a more poetic writer in the novels of
Thomas Hardy. Yet if a vote of English criticism even at this late day,
when all Continental Europe has the light of aesthetic truth, could be
taken, the majority against these artists would be overwhelmingly in
favor of a writer who had so little artistic sensibility, that he never
hesitated on any occasion, great or small, to make a foray among his
characters, and catch them up to show them to the reader and tell him how
beautiful or ugly they were; and cry out over their amazing properties.

"How few materials," says Emerson, "are yet used by our arts! The mass of
creatures and of qualities are still hid and expectant," and to break new
ground is still one of the uncommonest and most heroic of the virtues.
The artists are not alone to blame for the timidity that keeps them in
the old furrows of the worn-out fields; most of those whom they live to
please, or live by pleasing, prefer to have them remain there; it wants
rare virtue to appreciate what is new, as well as to invent it; and the
"easy things to understand" are the conventional things. This is why the
ordinary English novel, with its hackneyed plot, scenes, and figures, is
more comfortable to the ordinary American than an American novel, which
deals, at its worst, with comparatively new interests and motives. To
adjust one's self to the enjoyment of these costs an intellectual effort,
and an intellectual effort is what no ordinary person likes to make. It
is only the extraordinary person who can say, with Emerson: "I ask not
for the great, the remote, the romantic . . . . I embrace the common;
I sit at the feet of the familiar and the low . . . . Man is
surprised to find that things near are not less beautiful and wondrous
than things remote . . . . The perception of the worth of the vulgar
is fruitful in discoveries . . . . The foolish man wonders at the
unusual, but the wise man at the usual . . . . To-day always looks
mean to the thoughtless; but to-day is a king in disguise . . . .
Banks and tariffs, the newspaper and caucus, Methodism and Unitarianism,
are flat and dull to dull people, but rest on the same foundations of
wonder as the town of Troy and the temple of Delphos."

Perhaps we ought not to deny their town of Troy and their temple of
Delphos to the dull people; but if we ought, and if we did, they would
still insist upon having them. An English novel, full of titles and
rank, is apparently essential to the happiness of such people; their weak
and childish imagination is at home in its familiar environment; they
know what they are reading; the fact that it is hash many times warmed
over reassures them; whereas a story of our own life, honestly studied
and faithfully represented, troubles them with varied misgiving. They
are not sure that it is literature; they do not feel that it is good
society; its characters, so like their own, strike them as commonplace;
they say they do not wish to know such people.

Everything in England is appreciable to the literary sense, while the
sense of the literary worth of things in America is still faint and weak
with most people, with the vast majority who "ask for the great, the
remote, the romantic," who cannot "embrace the common," cannot "sit at
the feet of the familiar and the low," in the good company of Emerson.
We are all, or nearly all, struggling to be distinguished from the mass,
and to be set apart in select circles and upper classes like the fine
people we have read about. We are really a mixture of the plebeian
ingredients of the whole world; but that is not bad; our vulgarity
consists in trying to ignore "the worth of the vulgar," in believing that
the superfine is better.


Another Spanish novelist of our day, whose books have given me great
pleasure, is so far from being of the same mind of Senor Valdes about
fiction that he boldly declares himself, in the preface to his 'Pepita
Ximenez,' "an advocate of art for art's sake." I heartily agree with him
that it is "in very bad taste, always impertinent and often pedantic, to
attempt to prove theses by writing stories," and yet if it is true that
"the object of a novel should be to charm through a faithful
representation of human actions and human passions, and to create by this
fidelity to nature a beautiful work," and if "the creation of the
beautiful" is solely "the object of art," it never was and never can be
solely its effect as long as men are men and women are women. If ever
the race is resolved into abstract qualities, perhaps this may happen;
but till then the finest effect of the "beautiful" will be ethical and
not aesthetic merely. Morality penetrates all things, it is the soul of
all things. Beauty may clothe it on, whether it is false morality and an
evil soul, or whether it is true and a good soul. In the one case the
beauty will corrupt, and in the other it will edify, and in either case
it will infallibly and inevitably have an ethical effect, now light, now
grave, according as the thing is light or grave. We cannot escape from
this; we are shut up to it by the very conditions of our being. For the
moment, it is charming to have a story end happily, but after one has
lived a certain number of years, and read a certain number of novels, it
is not the prosperous or adverse fortune of the characters that affects
one, but the good or bad faith of the novelist in dealing with them.
Will he play us false or will he be true in the operation of this or that
principle involved? I cannot hold him to less account than this: he must


Back to Full Books