Literature and Life, Entire
William Dean Howells

Part 9 out of 9

be true to what life has taught me is the truth, and after that he may
let any fate betide his people; the novel ends well that ends faithfully.
The greater his power, the greater his responsibility before the human
conscience, which is God in us. But men come and go, and what they do in
their limited physical lives is of comparatively little moment; it is
what they say that really survives to bless or to ban; and it is the evil
which Wordsworth felt in Goethe, that must long sur vive him. There is a
kind of thing--a kind of metaphysical lie against righteousness and
common-sense which is called the Unmoral; and is supposed to be different
from the Immoral; and it is this which is supposed to cover many of the
faults of Goethe. His 'Wilhelm Meister,' for example, is so far removed
within the region of the "ideal" that its unprincipled, its evil
principled, tenor in regard to women is pronounced "unmorality," and is
therefore inferably harmless. But no study of Goethe is complete without
some recognition of the qualities which caused Wordsworth to hurl the
book across the room with an indignant perception of its sensuality.
For the sins of his life Goethe was perhaps sufficiently punished in his
life by his final marriage with Christiane; for the sins of his
literature many others must suffer. I do not despair, however, of the
day when the poor honest herd of man kind shall give universal utterance
to the universal instinct, and shall hold selfish power in politics, in
art, in religion, for the devil that it is; when neither its crazy pride
nor its amusing vanity shall be flattered by the puissance of the
"geniuses" who have forgotten their duty to the common weakness, and have
abused it to their own glory. In that day we shall shudder at many
monsters of passion, of self-indulgence, of heartlessness, whom we still
more or less openly adore for their "genius," and shall account no man
worshipful whom we do not feel and know to be good. The spectacle of
strenuous achievement will then not dazzle or mislead; it will not
sanctify or palliate iniquity; it will only render it the more hideous
and pitiable.

In fact, the whole belief in "genius" seems to me rather a mischievous
superstition, and if not mischievous always, still always a superstition.
From the account of those who talk about it, "genius" appears to be the
attribute of a sort of very potent and admirable prodigy which God has
created out of the common for the astonishment and confusion of the rest
of us poor human beings. But do they really believe it? Do they mean
anything more or less than the Mastery which comes to any man according
to his powers and diligence in any direction? If not, why not have an
end of the superstition which has caused our race to go on so long
writing and reading of the difference between talent and genius? It is
within the memory of middle-aged men that the Maelstrom existed in the
belief of the geographers, but we now get on perfectly well without it;
and why should we still suffer under the notion of "genius" which keeps
so many poor little authorlings trembling in question whether they have
it, or have only "talent"?

One of the greatest captains who ever lived [General U. S. Grant D.W.]
--a plain, taciturn, unaffected soul--has told the story of his wonderful
life as unconsciously as if it were all an every-day affair, not
different from other lives, except as a great exigency of the human race
gave it importance. So far as he knew, he had no natural aptitude for
arms, and certainly no love for the calling. But he went to West Point
because, as he quaintly tells us, his father "rather thought he would
go"; and he fought through one war with credit, but without glory. The
other war, which was to claim his powers and his science, found him
engaged in the most prosaic of peaceful occupations; be obeyed its call
because he loved his country, and not because he loved war. All the
world knows the rest, and all the world knows that greater military
mastery has not been shown than his campaigns illustrated. He does not
say this in his book, or hint it in any way; he gives you the facts, and
leaves them with you. But the Personal Memoirs of U. S. Grant, written
as simply and straightforwardly as his battles were fought, couched in
the most unpretentious phrase, with never a touch of grandiosity or
attitudinizing, familiar, homely in style, form a great piece of
literature, because great literature is nothing more nor less than the
clear expression of minds that have some thing great in them, whether
religion, or beauty, or deep experience. Probably Grant would have said
that he had no more vocation to literature than he had to war. He owns,
with something like contrition, that he used to read a great many novels;
but we think he would have denied the soft impeachment of literary power.
Nevertheless, he shows it, as he showed military power, unexpectedly,
almost miraculously. All the conditions here, then, are favorable to
supposing a case of "genius." Yet who would trifle with that great heir
of fame, that plain, grand, manly soul, by speaking of "genius" and him
together? Who calls Washington a genius? or Franklin, or Bismarck, or
Cavour, or Columbus, or Luther, or Darwin, or Lincoln? Were these men
second-rate in their way? Or is "genius" that indefinable, preternatural
quality, sacred to the musicians, the painters, the sculptors, the
actors, the poets, and above all, the poets? Or is it that the poets,
having most of the say in this world, abuse it to shameless self-
flattery, and would persuade the inarticulate classes that they are on
peculiar terms of confidence with the deity?


In General Grant's confession of novel-reading there is a sort of
inference that he had wasted his time, or else the guilty conscience of
the novelist in me imagines such an inference. But however this may be,
there is certainly no question concerning the intention of a
correspondent who once wrote to me after reading some rather bragging
claims I had made for fiction as a mental and moral means. "I have very
grave doubts," he said, "as to the whole list of magnificent things that
you seem to think novels have done for the race, and can witness in
myself many evil things which they have done for me. Whatever in my
mental make-up is wild and visionary, whatever is untrue, whatever is
injurious, I can trace to the perusal of some work of fiction. Worse
than that, they beget such high-strung and supersensitive ideas of life
that plain industry and plodding perseverance are despised, and matter-
of-fact poverty, or every-day, commonplace distress, meets with no
sympathy, if indeed noticed at all, by one who has wept over the
impossibly accumulated sufferings of some gaudy hero or heroine."

I am not sure that I had the controversy with this correspondent that he
seemed to suppose; but novels are now so fully accepted by every one
pretending to cultivated taste and they really form the whole
intellectual life of such immense numbers of people, without question of
their influence, good or bad, upon the mind that it is refreshing to have
them frankly denounced, and to be invited to revise one's ideas and
feelings in regard to them. A little honesty, or a great deal of
honesty, in this quest will do the novel, as we hope yet to have it, and
as we have already begun to have it, no harm; and for my own part I will
confess that I believe fiction in the past to have been largely
injurious, as I believe the stage-play to be still almost wholly
injurious, through its falsehood, its folly, its wantonness, and its
aimlessness. It may be safely assumed that most of the novel-reading
which people fancy an intellectual pastime is the emptiest dissipation,
hardly more related to thought or the wholesome exercise of the mental
faculties than opium-eating; in either case the brain is drugged, and
left weaker and crazier for the debauch. If this may be called the
negative result of the fiction habit, the positive injury that most
novels work is by no means so easily to be measured in the case of young
men whose character they help so much to form or deform, and the women of
all ages whom they keep so much in ignorance of the world they
misrepresent. Grown men have little harm from them, but in the other
cases, which are the vast majority, they hurt because they are not true--
not because they are malevolent, but because they are idle lies about
human nature and the social fabric, which it behooves us to know and to
understand, that we may deal justly with ourselves and with one another.
One need not go so far as our correspondent, and trace to the fiction
habit "whatever is wild and visionary, whatever is untrue, whatever is
injurious," in one's life; bad as the fiction habit is it is probably not
responsible for the whole sum of evil in its victims, and I believe that
if the reader will use care in choosing from this fungus-growth with
which the fields of literature teem every day, he may nourish himself as
with the true mushroom, at no risk from the poisonous species.

The tests are very plain and simple, and they are perfectly infallible.
If a novel flatters the passions, and exalts them above the principles,
it is poisonous; it may not kill, but it will certainly injure; and this
test will alone exclude an entire class of fiction, of which eminent
examples will occur to all. Then the whole spawn of so-called unmoral
romances, which imagine a world where the sins of sense are unvisited by
the penalties following, swift or slow, but inexorably sure, in the real
world, are deadly poison: these do kill. The, novels that merely tickle
our prejudices and lull our judgment, or that coddle our sensibilities or
pamper our gross appetite for the marvellous, are not so fatal, but they
are innutritious, and clog the soul with unwholesome vapors of all kinds.
No doubt they too help to weaken the moral fibre, and make their readers
indifferent to "plodding perseverance and plain industry," and to
"matter-of-fact poverty and commonplace distress."

Without taking them too seriously, it still must be owned that the "gaudy
hero and heroine" are to blame for a great deal of harm in the world.
That heroine long taught by example, if not precept, that Love, or the
passion or fancy she mistook for it, was the chief interest of a life,
which is really concerned with a great many other things; that it was
lasting in the way she knew it; that it was worthy of every sacrifice,
and was altogether a finer thing than prudence, obedience, reason; that
love alone was glorious and beautiful, and these were mean and ugly in
comparison with it. More lately she has begun to idolize and illustrate
Duty, and she is hardly less mischievous in this new role, opposing duty,
as she did love, to prudence, obedience, and reason. The stock hero,
whom, if we met him, we could not fail to see was a most deplorable
person, has undoubtedly imposed himself upon the victims of the fiction
habit as admirable. With him, too, love was and is the great affair,
whether in its old romantic phase of chivalrous achievement or manifold
suffering for love's sake, or its more recent development of the
"virile," the bullying, and the brutal, or its still more recent agonies
of self-sacrifice, as idle and useless as the moral experiences of the
insane asylums. With his vain posturings and his ridiculous splendor he
is really a painted barbarian, the prey of his passions and his
delusions, full of obsolete ideals, and the motives and ethics of a
savage, which the guilty author of his being does his best--or his worst
--in spite of his own light and knowledge, to foist upon the reader as
something generous and noble. I am not merely bringing this charge
against that sort of fiction which is beneath literature and outside of
it, "the shoreless lakes of ditch-water," whose miasms fill the air below
the empyrean where the great ones sit; but I am accusing the work of some
of the most famous, who have, in this instance or in that, sinned against
the truth, which can alone exalt and purify men. I do not say that they
have constantly done so, or even commonly done so; but that they have
done so at all marks them as of the past, to be read with the due
historical allowance for their epoch and their conditions. For I believe
that, while inferior writers will and must continue to imitate them in
their foibles and their errors, no one here after will be able to achieve
greatness who is false to humanity, either in its facts or its duties.
The light of civilization has already broken even upon the novel, and no
conscientious man can now set about painting an image of life without
perpetual question of the verity of his work, and without feeling bound
to distinguish so clearly that no reader of his may be misled, between
what is right and what is wrong, what is noble and what is base, what is
health and what is perdition, in the actions and the characters he

The fiction that aims merely to entertain--the fiction that is to serious
fiction as the opera-bouffe, the ballet, and the pantomime are to the
true drama--need not feel the burden of this obligation so deeply; but
even such fiction will not be gay or trivial to any reader's hurt, and
criticism should hold it to account if it passes from painting to
teaching folly.

I confess that I do not care to judge any work of the imagination without
first of all applying this test to it. We must ask ourselves before we
ask anything else, Is it true?--true to the motives, the impulses, the
principles that shape the life of actual men and women? This truth,
which necessarily includes the highest morality and the highest artistry-
this truth given, the book cannot be wicked and cannot be weak; and
without it all graces of style and feats of invention and cunning of
construction are so many superfluities of naughtiness. It is well for
the truth to have all these, and shine in them, but for falsehood they
are merely meretricious, the bedizenment of the wanton; they atone for
nothing, they count for nothing. But in fact they come naturally of
truth, and grace it without solicitation; they are added unto it. In the
whole range of fiction I know of no true picture of life--that is, of
human nature--which is not also a masterpiece of literature, full of
divine and natural beauty. It may have no touch or tint of this special
civilization or of that; it had better have this local color well
ascertained; but the truth is deeper and finer than aspects, and if the
book is true to what men and women know of one another's souls it will be
true enough, and it will be great and beautiful. It is the conception of
literature as something apart from life, superfinely aloof, which makes
it really unimportant to the great mass of mankind, without a message or
a meaning for them; and it is the notion that a novel may be false in its
portrayal of causes and effects that makes literary art contemptible even
to those whom it amuses, that forbids them to regard the novelist as a
serious or right-minded person. If they do not in some moment of
indignation cry out against all novels, as my correspondent does, they
remain besotted in the fume of the delusions purveyed to them, with no
higher feeling for the author than such maudlin affection as the
frequenter of an opium-joint perhaps knows for the attendant who fills
his pipe with the drug.

Or, as in the case of another correspondent who writes that in his youth
he "read a great many novels, but always regarded it as an amusement,
like horse racing and card-playing," for which he had no time when he
entered upon the serious business of life, it renders them merely
contemptuous. His view of the matter may be commended to the brotherhood
and sisterhood of novelists as full of wholesome if bitter suggestion;
and I urge them not to dismiss it with high literary scorn as that of
some Boeotian dull to the beauty of art. Refuse it as we may, it is
still the feeling of the vast majority of people for whom life is
earnest, and who find only a distorted and misleading likeness of it in
our books. We may fold ourselves in our scholars' gowns, and close the
doors of our studies, and affect to despise this rude voice; but we
cannot shut it out. It comes to us from wherever men are at work, from
wherever they are truly living, and accuses us of unfaithfulness, of
triviality, of mere stage-play; and none of us can escape conviction
except he prove himself worthy of his time--a time in which the great
masters have brought literature back to life, and filled its ebbing veins
with the red tides of reality. We cannot all equal them; we need not
copy them; but we can all go to the sources of their inspiration and
their power; and to draw from these no one need go far--no one need
really go out of himself.

Fifty years ago, Carlyle, in whom the truth was always alive, but in whom
it was then unperverted by suffering, by celebrity, and by despair, wrote
in his study of Diderot: "Were it not reasonable to prophesy that this
exceeding great multitude of novel-writers and such like must, in a new
generation, gradually do one of two things: either retire into the
nurseries, and work for children, minors, and semi-fatuous persons of
both sexes, or else, what were far better, sweep their novel-fabric into
the dust-cart, and betake themselves with such faculty as they have to
understand and record what is true, of which surely there is, and will
forever be, a whole infinitude unknown to us of infinite importance to
us? Poetry, it will more and more come to be understood, is nothing but
higher knowledge; and the only genuine Romance (for grown persons),

If, after half a century, fiction still mainly works for "children,
minors, and semi-fatuous persons of both sexes," it is nevertheless one
of the hopefulest signs of the world's progress that it has begun to work
for "grown persons," and if not exactly in the way that Carlyle might
have solely intended in urging its writers to compile memoirs instead of
building the "novel-fabric," still it has, in the highest and widest
sense, already made Reality its Romance. I cannot judge it, I do not
even care for it, except as it has done this; and I can hardly conceive
of a literary self-respect in these days compatible with the old trade of
make-believe, with the production of the kind of fiction which is too
much honored by classification with card-playing and horse-racing. But
let fiction cease to lie about life; let it portray men and women as they
are, actuated by the motives and the passions in the measure we all know;
let it leave off painting dolls and working them by springs and wires;
let it show the different interests in their true proportions; let it
forbear to preach pride and revenge, folly and insanity, egotism and
prejudice, but frankly own these for what they are, in whatever figures
and occasions they appear; let it not put on fine literary airs; let it
speak the dialect, the language, that most Americans know--the language
of unaffected people everywhere--and there can be no doubt of an
unlimited future, not only of delightfulness but of usefulness, for it.


This is what I say in my severer moods, but at other times I know that,
of course, no one is going to hold all fiction to such strict account.
There is a great deal of it which may be very well left to amuse us, if
it can, when we are sick or when we are silly, and I am not inclined to
despise it in the performance of this office. Or, if people find
pleasure in having their blood curdled for the sake of having it
uncurdled again at the end of the book, I would not interfere with their
amusement, though I do not desire it.

There is a certain demand in primitive natures for the kind of fiction
that does this, and the author of it is usually very proud of it. The
kind of novels he likes, and likes to write, are intended to take his
reader's mind, or what that reader would probably call his mind, off
himself; they make one forget life and all its cares and duties; they are
not in the least like the novels which make you think of these, and shame
you into at least wishing to be a helpfuller and wholesomer creature than
you are. No sordid details of verity here, if you please; no wretched
being humbly and weakly struggling to do right and to be true, suffering
for his follies and his sins, tasting joy only through the mortification
of self, and in the help of others; nothing of all this, but a great,
whirling splendor of peril and achievement, a wild scene of heroic
adventure and of emotional ground and lofty tumbling, with a stage
"picture" at the fall of the curtain, and all the good characters in a
row, their left hands pressed upon their hearts, and kissing their right
hands to the audience, in the old way that has always charmed and always
will charm, Heaven bless it!

In a world which loves the spectacular drama and the practically
bloodless sports of the modern amphitheatre the author of this sort of
fiction has his place, and we must not seek to destroy him because he
fancies it the first place. In fact, it is a condition of his doing well
the kind of work he does that he should think it important, that he
should believe in himself; and I would not take away this faith of his,
even if I could. As I say, he has his place. The world often likes to
forget itself, and he brings on his heroes, his goblins, his feats, his
hair-breadth escapes, his imminent deadly breaches, and the poor,
foolish, childish old world renews the excitements of its nonage.
Perhaps this is a work of beneficence; and perhaps our brave conjurer in
his cabalistic robe is a philanthropist in disguise.

Within the last four or five years there has been throughout the whole
English-speaking world what Mr. Grant Allen happily calls the
"recrudescence" of taste in fiction. The effect is less noticeable in
America than in England, where effete Philistinism, conscious of the dry-
rot of its conventionality, is casting about for cure in anything that is
wild and strange and unlike itself. But the recrudescence has been
evident enough here, too; and a writer in one of our periodicals has put
into convenient shape some common errors concerning popularity as a test
of merit in a book. He seems to think, for instance, that the love of
the marvellous and impossible in fiction, which is shown not only by
"the unthinking multitude clamoring about the book counters" for fiction
of that sort, but by the "literary elect" also, is proof of some
principle in human nature which ought to be respected as well as
tolerated. He seems to believe that the ebullition of this passion forms
a sufficient answer to those who say that art should represent life, and
that the art which misrepresents life is feeble art and false art. But
it appears to me that a little carefuller reasoning from a little closer
inspection of the facts would not have brought him to these conclusions.
In the first place, I doubt very much whether the "literary elect" have
been fascinated in great numbers by the fiction in question; but if I
supposed them to have really fallen under that spell, I should still be
able to account for their fondness and that of the "unthinking multitude"
upon the same grounds, without honoring either very much. It is the
habit of hasty casuists to regard civilization as inclusive of all the
members of a civilized community; but this is a palpable error. Many
persons in every civilized community live in a state of more or less
evident savagery with respect to their habits, their morals, and their
propensities; and they are held in check only by the law. Many more yet
are savage in their tastes, as they show by the decoration of their
houses and persons, and by their choice of books and pictures; and these
are left to the restraints of public opinion. In fact, no man can be
said to be thoroughly civilized or always civilized; the most refined,
the most enlightened person has his moods, his moments of barbarism, in
which the best, or even the second best, shall not please him. At these
times the lettered and the unlettered are alike primitive and their
gratifications are of the same simple sort; the highly cultivated person
may then like melodrama, impossible fiction, and the trapeze as sincerely
and thoroughly as a boy of thirteen or a barbarian of any age.

I do not blame him for these moods; I find something instructive and
interesting in them; but if they lastingly established themselves in him,
I could not help deploring the state of that person. No one can really
think that the "literary elect," who are said to have joined the
"unthinking multitude" in clamoring about the book counters for the
romances of no-man's land, take the same kind of pleasure in them as they
do in a novel of Tolstoy, Tourguenief, George Eliot, Thackeray, Balzac,
Manzoni, Hawthorne, Mr. Henry James, Mr. Thomas Hardy, Senor Palacio
Valdes, or even Walter Scott. They have joined the "unthinking
multitude," perhaps because they are tired of thinking, and expect to
find relaxation in feeling--feeling crudely, grossly, merely. For once
in a way there is no great harm in this; perhaps no harm at all. It is
perfectly natural; let them have their innocent debauch. But let us
distinguish, for our own sake and guidance, between the different kinds
of things that please the same kind of people; between the things that
please them habitually and those that please them occasionally; between
the pleasures that edify them and those that amuse them. Otherwise we
shall be in danger of becoming permanently part of the "unthinking
multitude," and of remaining puerile, primitive, savage. We shall be so
in moods and at moments; but let us not fancy that those are high moods
or fortunate moments. If they are harmless, that is the most that can be
said for them. They are lapses from which we can perhaps go forward more
vigorously; but even this is not certain.

My own philosophy of the matter, however, would not bring me to
prohibition of such literary amusements as the writer quoted seems to
find significant of a growing indifference to truth and sanity in
fiction. Once more, I say, these amusements have their place, as the
circus has, and the burlesque and negro minstrelsy, and the ballet, and
prestidigitation. No one of these is to be despised in its place; but we
had better understand that it is not the highest place, and that it is
hardly an intellectual delight. The lapse of all the "literary elect"
in the world could not dignify unreality; and their present mood, if it
exists, is of no more weight against that beauty in literature which
comes from truth alone, and never can come from anything else, than the
permanent state of the "unthinking multitude."

Yet even as regards the "unthinking multitude," I believe I am not able
to take the attitude of the writer I have quoted. I am afraid that I
respect them more than he would like to have me, though I cannot always
respect their taste, any more than that of the "literary elect."
I respect them for their good sense in most practical matters; for their
laborious, honest lives; for their kindness, their good-will; for that
aspiration towards something better than themselves which seems to stir,
however dumbly, in every human breast not abandoned to literary pride or
other forms of self-righteousness. I find every man interesting, whether
he thinks or unthinks, whether he is savage or civilized; for this reason
I cannot thank the novelist who teaches us not to know but to unknow our
kind. Yet I should by no means hold him to such strict account as
Emerson, who felt the absence of the best motive, even in the greatest of
the masters, when he said of Shakespeare that, after all, he was only
master of the revels. The judgment is so severe, even with the praise
which precedes it, that one winces under it; and if one is still young,
with the world gay before him, and life full of joyous promise, one is
apt to ask, defiantly, Well, what is better than being such a master of
the revels as Shakespeare was? Let each judge for himself. To the heart
again of serious youth, uncontaminate and exigent of ideal good, it must
always be a grief that the great masters seem so often to have been
willing to amuse the leisure and vacancy of meaner men, and leave their
mission to the soul but partially fulfilled. This, perhaps, was what
Emerson had in mind; and if he had it in mind of Shakespeare, who gave
us, with his histories and comedies and problems, such a searching homily
as "Macbeth," one feels that he scarcely recognized the limitations of
the dramatist's art. Few consciences, at times, seem so enlightened as
that of this personally unknown person, so withdrawn into his work, and
so lost to the intensest curiosity of after-time; at other times he seems
merely Elizabethan in his coarseness, his courtliness, his imperfect


Of the finer kinds of romance, as distinguished from the novel, I would
even encourage the writing, though it is one of the hard conditions of
romance that its personages starting with a 'parti pris' can rarely be
characters with a living growth, but are apt to be types, limited to the
expression of one principle, simple, elemental, lacking the God-given
complexity of motive which we find in all the human beings we know.

Hawthorne, the great master of the romance, had the insight and the power
to create it anew as a kind in fiction; though I am not sure that 'The
Scarlet Letter' and the 'Blithedale Romance' are not, strictly speaking,
novels rather than romances. They, do not play with some old
superstition long outgrown, and they do not invent a new superstition to
play with, but deal with things vital in every one's pulse. I am not
saying that what may be called the fantastic romance--the romance that
descends from 'Frankenstein' rather than 'The Scarlet Letter'--ought not
to be. On the contrary, I should grieve to lose it, as I should grieve
to lose the pantomime or the comic opera, or many other graceful things
that amuse the passing hour, and help us to live agreeably in a world
where men actually sin, suffer, and die. But it belongs to the
decorative arts, and though it has a high place among them, it cannot be
ranked with the works of the imagination--the works that represent and
body forth human experience. Its ingenuity, can always afford a refined
pleasure, and it can often, at some risk to itself, convey a valuable

Perhaps the whole region of historical romance might be reopened with
advantage to readers and writers who cannot bear to be brought face to
face with human nature, but require the haze of distance or a far
perspective, in which all the disagreeable details shall be lost. There
is no good reason why these harmless people should not be amused, or
their little preferences indulged.

But here, again, I have my modest doubts, some recent instances are so
fatuous, as far as the portrayal of character goes, though I find them
admirably contrived in some respects. When I have owned the excellence
of the staging in every respect, and the conscience with which the
carpenter (as the theatrical folks say) has done his work, I am at the
end of my praises. The people affect me like persons of our generation
made up for the parts; well trained, well costumed, but actors, and
almost amateurs. They have the quality that makes the histrionics of
amateurs endurable; they are ladies and gentlemen; the worst, the
wickedest of them, is a lady or gentleman behind the scene.

Yet, no doubt it is well that there should be a reversion to the earlier
types of thinking and feeling, to earlier ways of looking at human
nature, and I will not altogether refuse the pleasure offered me by the
poetic romancer or the historical romancer because I find my pleasure
chiefly in Tolstoy and Valdes and Thomas Hardy and Tourguenief, and
Balzac at his best.


It used to be one of the disadvantages of the practice of romance in
America, which Hawthorne more or less whimsically lamented, that there
were so few shadows and inequalities in our broad level of prosperity;
and it is one of the reflections suggested by Dostoievsky's novel, 'The
Crime and the Punishment,' that whoever struck a note so profoundly
tragic in American fiction would do a false and mistaken thing--as false
and as mistaken in its way as dealing in American fiction with certain
nudities which the Latin peoples seem to find edifying. Whatever their
deserts, very few American novelists have been led out to be shot, or
finally exiled to the rigors of a winter at Duluth; and in a land where
journeymen carpenters and plumbers strike for four dollars a day the sum
of hunger and cold is comparatively small, and the wrong from class to
class has been almost inappreciable, though all this is changing for the
worse. Our novelists, therefore, concern themselves with the more
smiling aspects of life, which are the more American, and seek the
universal in the individual rather than the social interests. It is
worth while, even at the risk of being called commonplace, to be true to
our well-to-do actualities; the very passions themselves seem to be
softened and modified by conditions which formerly at least could not be
said to wrong any one, to cramp endeavor, or to cross lawful desire.
Sin and suffering and shame there must always be in the world, I suppose,
but I believe that in this new world of ours it is still mainly from one
to another one, and oftener still from one to one's self. We have death,
too, in America, and a great deal of disagreeable and painful disease,
which the multiplicity of our patent medicines does not seem to cure;
but this is tragedy that comes in the very nature of things, and is not
peculiarly American, as the large, cheerful average of health and success
and happy life is. It will not do to boast, but it is well to be true to
the facts, and to see that, apart from these purely mortal troubles,
the race here has enjoyed conditions in which most of the ills that have
darkened its annals might be averted by honest work and unselfish

Fine artists we have among us, and right-minded as far as they go; and we
must not forget this at evil moments when it seems as if all the women
had taken to writing hysterical improprieties, and some of the men were
trying to be at least as hysterical in despair of being as improper.
Other traits are much more characteristic of our life and our fiction.
In most American novels, vivid and graphic as the best of them are, the
people are segregated if not sequestered, and the scene is sparsely
populated. The effect may be in instinctive response to the vacancy of
our social life, and I shall not make haste to blame it. There are few
places, few occasions among us, in which a novelist can get a large
number of polite people together, or at least keep them together. Unless
he carries a snap-camera his picture of them has no probability; they
affect one like the figures perfunctorily associated in such deadly old
engravings as that of "Washington Irving and his Friends." Perhaps it is
for this reason that we excel in small pieces with three or four figures,
or in studies of rustic communities, where there is propinquity if not
society. Our grasp of more urbane life is feeble; most attempts to
assemble it in our pictures are failures, possibly because it is too
transitory, too intangible in its nature with us, to be truthfully
represented as really existent.

I am not sure that the Americans have not brought the short story nearer
perfection in the all-round sense that almost any other people, and for
reasons very simple and near at hand. It might be argued from the
national hurry and impatience that it was a literary form peculiarly
adapted to the American temperament, but I suspect that its extraordinary
development among us is owing much more to more tangible facts.
The success of American magazines, which is nothing less than prodigious,
is only commensurate with their excellence. Their sort of success is not
only from the courage to decide which ought to please, but from the
knowledge of what does please; and it is probable that, aside from the
pictures, it is the short stories which please the readers of our best
magazines. The serial novels they must have, of course; but rather more
of course they must have short stories, and by operation of the law of
supply and demand, the short stories, abundant in quantity and excellent
in quality, are forthcoming because they are wanted. By another
operation of the same law, which political economists have more recently
taken account of, the demand follows the supply, and short stories are
sought for because there is a proven ability to furnish them, and people
read them willingly because they are usually very good. The art of
writing them is now so disciplined and diffused with us that there is no
lack either for the magazines or for the newspaper "syndicates" which
deal in them almost to the exclusion of the serials.

An interesting fact in regard to the different varieties of the short
story among us is that the sketches and studies by the women seem
faithfuller and more realistic than those of the men, in proportion to
their number. Their tendency is more distinctly in that direction, and
there is a solidity, an honest observation, in the work of such women,
which often leaves little to be desired. I should, upon the whole,
be disposed to rank American short stories only below those of such
Russian writers as I have read, and I should praise rather than blame
their free use of our different local parlances, or "dialects," as people
call them. I like this because I hope that our inherited English may be
constantly freshened and revived from the native sources which our
literary decentralization will help to keep open, and I will own that as
I turn over novels coming from Philadelphia, from New Mexico, from
Boston, from Tennessee, from rural New England, from New York, every
local flavor of diction gives me courage and pleasure. Alphonse Daudet,
in a conversation with H. H. Boyesen said, speaking of Tourguenief,
"What a luxury it must be to have a great big untrodden barbaric language
to wade into! We poor fellows who work in the language of an old
civilization, we may sit and chisel our little verbal felicities, only to
find in the end that it is a borrowed jewel we are polishing. The crown-
jewels of our French tongue have passed through the hands of so many
generations of monarchs that it seems like presumption on the part of any
late-born pretender to attempt to wear them."

This grief is, of course, a little whimsical, yet it has a certain
measure of reason in it, and the same regret has been more seriously
expressed by the Italian poet Aleardi:

"Muse of an aged people, in the eve
Of fading civilization, I was born.
. . . . . . Oh, fortunate,
My sisters, who in the heroic dawn
Of races sung! To them did destiny give
The virgin fire and chaste ingenuousness
Of their land's speech; and, reverenced, their hands
Ran over potent strings."

It will never do to allow that we are at such a desperate pass in
English, but something of this divine despair we may feel too in thinking
of "the spacious times of great Elizabeth," when the poets were trying
the stops of the young language, and thrilling with the surprises of
their own music. We may comfort ourselves, however, unless we prefer a
luxury of grief, by remembering that no language is ever old on the lips
of those who speak it, no matter how decrepit it drops from the pen.
We have only to leave our studies, editorial and other, and go into the
shops and fields to find the "spacious times" again; and from the
beginning Realism, before she had put on her capital letter, had divined
this near-at-hand truth along with the rest. Lowell, almost the greatest
and finest realist who ever wrought in verse, showed us that Elizabeth
was still Queen where he heard Yankee farmers talk. One need not invite
slang into the company of its betters, though perhaps slang has been
dropping its "s" and becoming language ever since the world began, and is
certainly sometimes delightful and forcible beyond the reach of the
dictionary. I would not have any one go about for new words, but if one
of them came aptly, not to reject its help. For our novelists to try to
write Americanly, from any motive, would be a dismal error, but being
born Americans, I then use "Americanisms" whenever these serve their
turn; and when their characters speak, I should like to hear them speak
true American, with all the varying Tennesseean, Philadelphian,
Bostonian, and New York accents. If we bother ourselves to write what
the critics imagine to be "English," we shall be priggish and artificial,
and still more so if we make our Americans talk "English." There is also
this serious disadvantage about "English," that if we wrote the best
"English" in the world, probably the English themselves would not know
it, or, if they did, certainly would not own it. It has always been
supposed by grammarians and purists that a language can be kept as they
find it; but languages, while they live, are perpetually changing. God
apparently meant them for the common people; and the common people will
use them freely as they use other gifts of God. On their lips our
continental English will differ more and more from the insular English,
and I believe that this is not deplorable, but desirable.

In fine, I would have our American novelists be as American as they
unconsciously can. Matthew Arnold complained that he found no
"distinction" in our life, and I would gladly persuade all artists
intending greatness in any kind among us that the recognition of the fact
pointed out by Mr. Arnold ought to be a source of inspiration to them,
and not discouragement. We have been now some hundred years building up
a state on the affirmation of the essential equality of men in their
rights and duties, and whether we have been right or been wrong the gods
have taken us at our word, and have responded to us with a civilization
in which there is no "distinction" perceptible to the eye that loves and
values it. Such beauty and such grandeur as we have is common beauty,
common grandeur, or the beauty and grandeur in which the quality of
solidarity so prevails that neither distinguishes itself to the
disadvantage of anything else. It seems to me that these conditions
invite the artist to the study and the appreciation of the common, and to
the portrayal in every art of those finer and higher aspects which unite
rather than sever humanity, if he would thrive in our new order of
things. The talent that is robust enough to front the every-day world
and catch the charm of its work-worn, care-worn, brave, kindly face, need
not fear the encounter, though it seems terrible to the sort nurtured in
the superstition of the romantic, the bizarre, the heroic, the
distinguished, as the things alone worthy of painting or carving or
writing. The arts must become democratic, and then we shall have the
expression of America in art; and the reproach which Arnold was half
right in making us shall have no justice in it any longer; we shall be


In the mean time it has been said with a superficial justice that our
fiction is narrow; though in the same sense I suppose the present English
fiction is as narrow as our own; and most modern fiction is narrow in a
certain sense. In Italy the best men are writing novels as brief and
restricted in range as ours; in Spain the novels are intense and deep,
and not spacious; the French school, with the exception of Zola, is
narrow; the Norwegians are narrow; the Russians, except Tolstoy, are
narrow, and the next greatest after him, Tourguenief, is the narrowest
great novelist, as to mere dimensions, that ever lived, dealing nearly
always with small groups, isolated and analyzed in the most American
fashion. In fact, the charge of narrowness accuses the whole tendency of
modern fiction as much as the American school. But I do not by any means
allow that this narrowness is a defect, while denying that it is a
universal characteristic of our fiction; it is rather, for the present,
a virtue. Indeed, I should call the present American work, North and
South, thorough rather than narrow. In one sense it is as broad as life,
for each man is a microcosm, and the writer who is able to acquaint us
intimately with half a dozen people, or the conditions of a neighborhood
or a class, has done something which cannot in any, bad sense be called
narrow; his breadth is vertical instead of lateral, that is all; and this
depth is more desirable than horizontal expansion in a civilization like
ours, where the differences are not of classes, but of types, and not of
types either so much as of characters. A new method was necessary in
dealing with the new conditions, and the new method is worldwide, because
the whole world is more or less Americanized. Tolstoy is exceptionally
voluminous among modern writers, even Russian writers; and it might be
said that the forte of Tolstoy himself is not in his breadth sidewise,
but in his breadth upward and downward. 'The Death of Ivan Ilyitch'
leaves as vast an impression on the reader's soul as any episode of
'War and Peace,' which, indeed, can be recalled only in episodes, and not
as a whole. I think that our writers may be safely counselled to
continue their work in the modern way, because it is the best way yet
known. If they make it true, it will be large, no matter what its
superficies are; and it would be the greatest mistake to try to make it
big. A big book is necessarily a group of episodes more or less loosely
connected by a thread of narrative, and there seems no reason why this
thread must always be supplied. Each episode may be quite distinct, or
it may be one of a connected group; the final effect will be from the
truth of each episode, not from the size of the group.

The whole field of human experience as never so nearly covered by
imaginative literature in any age as in this; and American life
especially is getting represented with unexampled fulness. It is true
that no one writer, no one book, represents it, for that is not possible;
our social and political decentralization forbids this, and may forever
forbid it. But a great number of very good writers are instinctively
striving to make each part of the country and each phase of our
civilization known to all the other parts; and their work is not narrow
in any feeble or vicious sense. The world was once very little, and it
is now very large. Formerly, all science could be grasped by a single
mind; but now the man who hopes to become great or useful in science must
devote himself to a single department. It is so in everything--all arts,
all trades; and the novelist is not superior to the universal rule
against universality. He contributes his share to a thorough knowledge
of groups of the human race under conditions which are full of inspiring
novelty and interest. He works more fearlessly, frankly, and faithfully
than the novelist ever worked before; his work, or much of it, may be
destined never to be reprinted from the monthly magazines; but if he
turns to his book-shelf and regards the array of the British or other
classics, he knows that they, too, are for the most part dead; he knows
that the planet itself is destined to freeze up and drop into the sun at
last, with all its surviving literature upon it. The question is merely
one of time. He consoles himself, therefore, if he is wise, and works
on; and we may all take some comfort from the thought that most things
cannot be helped. Especially a movement in literature like that which
the world is now witnessing cannot be helped; and we could no more turn
back and be of the literary fashions of any age before this than we could
turn back and be of its social, economical, or political conditions.

If I were authorized to address any word directly to our novelists I
should say, Do not trouble yourselves about standards or ideals; but try
to be faithful and natural: remember that there is no greatness, no
beauty, which does not come from truth to your own knowledge of things;
and keep on working, even if your work is not long remembered.

At least three-fifths of the literature called classic, in all languages,
no more lives than the poems and stories that perish monthly in our
magazines. It is all printed and reprinted, generation after generation,
century after century; but it is not alive; it is as dead as the people
who wrote it and read it, and to whom it meant something, perhaps; with
whom it was a fashion, a caprice, a passing taste. A superstitious piety
preserves it, and pretends that it has aesthetic qualities which can
delight or edify; but nobody really enjoys it, except as a reflection of
the past moods and humors of the race, or a revelation of the author's
character; otherwise it is trash, and often very filthy trash, which the
present trash generally is not.


One of the great newspapers the other day invited the prominent American
authors to speak their minds upon a point in the theory and practice of
fiction which had already vexed some of them. It was the question of how
much or how little the American novel ought to deal with certain facts of
life which are not usually talked of before young people, and especially
young ladies. Of course the question was not decided, and I forget just
how far the balance inclined in favor of a larger freedom in the matter.
But it certainly inclined that way; one or two writers of the sex which
is somehow supposed to have purity in its keeping (as if purity were a
thing that did not practically concern the other sex, preoccupied with
serious affairs) gave it a rather vigorous tilt to that side. In view of
this fact it would not be the part of prudence to make an effort to dress
the balance; and indeed I do not know that I was going to make any such
effort. But there are some things to say, around and about the subject,
which I should like to have some one else say, and which I may myself
possibly be safe in suggesting.

One of the first of these is the fact, generally lost sight of by those
who censure the Anglo-Saxon novel for its prudishness, that it is really
not such a prude after all; and that if it is sometimes apparently
anxious to avoid those experiences of life not spoken of before young
people, this may be an appearance only. Sometimes a novel which has this
shuffling air, this effect of truckling to propriety, might defend
itself, if it could speak for itself, by saying that such experiences
happened not to come within its scheme, and that, so far from maiming or
mutilating itself in ignoring them, it was all the more faithfully
representative of the tone of modern life in dealing with love that was
chaste, and with passion so honest that it could be openly spoken of
before the tenderest society bud at dinner. It might say that the guilty
intrigue, the betrayal, the extreme flirtation even, was the exceptional
thing in life, and unless the scheme of the story necessarily involved
it, that it would be bad art to lug it in, and as bad taste as to
introduce such topics in a mixed company. It could say very justly that
the novel in our civilization now always addresses a mixed company, and
that the vast majority of the company are ladies, and that very many, if
not most, of these ladies are young girls. If the novel were written for
men and for married women alone, as in continental Europe, it might be
altogether different. But the simple fact is that it is not written for
them alone among us, and it is a question of writing, under cover of our
universal acceptance, things for young girls to read which you would be
put out-of-doors for saying to them, or of frankly giving notice of your
intention, and so cutting yourself off from the pleasure--and it is a
very high and sweet one of appealing to these vivid, responsive
intelligences, which are none the less brilliant and admirable because
they are innocent.

One day a novelist who liked, after the manner of other men, to repine at
his hard fate, complained to his friend, a critic, that he was tired of
the restriction he had put upon himself in this regard; for it is a
mistake, as can be readily shown, to suppose that others impose it. "See
how free those French fellows are!" he rebelled. "Shall we always be
shut up to our tradition of decency?"

"Do you think it's much worse than being shut up to their tradition of
indecency?" said his friend.

Then that novelist began to reflect, and he remembered how sick the
invariable motive of the French novel made him. He perceived finally
that, convention for convention, ours was not only more tolerable, but on
the whole was truer to life, not only to its complexion, but also to its
texture. No one will pretend that there is not vicious love beneath the
surface of our society; if he did, the fetid explosions of the divorce
trials would refute him; but if he pretended that it was in any just
sense characteristic of our society, he could be still more easily
refuted. Yet it exists, and it is unquestionably the material of
tragedy, the stuff from which intense effects are wrought. The question,
after owning this fact, is whether these intense effects are not rather
cheap effects. I incline to think they are, and I will try to say why I
think so, if I may do so without offence. The material itself, the mere
mention of it, has an instant fascination; it arrests, it detains, till
the last word is said, and while there is anything to be hinted. This is
what makes a love intrigue of some sort all but essential to the
popularity of any fiction. Without such an intrigue the intellectual
equipment of the author must be of the highest, and then he will succeed
only with the highest class of readers. But any author who will deal
with a guilty love intrigue holds all readers in his hand, the highest
with the lowest, as long as he hints the slightest hope of the smallest
potential naughtiness. He need not at all be a great author; he may be a
very shabby wretch, if he has but the courage or the trick of that sort
of thing. The critics will call him "virile" and "passionate"; decent
people will be ashamed to have been limed by him; but the low average
will only ask another chance of flocking into his net. If he happens to
be an able writer, his really fine and costly work will be unheeded, and
the lure to the appetite will be chiefly remembered. There may be other
qualities which make reputations for other men, but in his case they will
count for nothing. He pays this penalty for his success in that kind;
and every one pays some such penalty who deals with some such material.

But I do not mean to imply that his case covers the whole ground. So far
as it goes, though, it ought to stop the mouths of those who complain
that fiction is enslaved to propriety among us. It appears that of a
certain kind of impropriety it is free to give us all it will, and more.
But this is not what serious men and women writing fiction mean when they
rebel against the limitations of their art in our civilization. They
have no desire to deal with nakedness, as painters and sculptors freely
do in the worship of beauty; or with certain facts of life, as the stage
does, in the service of sensation. But they ask why, when the
conventions of the plastic and histrionic arts liberate their followers
to the portrayal of almost any phase of the physical or of the emotional
nature, an American novelist may not write a story on the lines of 'Anna
Karenina' or 'Madame Bovary.' They wish to touch one of the most serious
and sorrowful problems of life in the spirit of Tolstoy and Flaubert, and
they ask why they may not. At one time, they remind us, the Anglo-Saxon
novelist did deal with such problems--De Foe in his spirit, Richardson in
his, Goldsmith in his. At what moment did our fiction lose this
privilege? In what fatal hour did the Young Girl arise and seal the lips
of Fiction, with a touch of her finger, to some of the most vital
interests of life?

Whether I wished to oppose them in their aspiration for greater freedom,
or whether I wished to encourage them, I should begin to answer them by
saying that the Young Girl has never done anything of the kind. The
manners of the novel have been improving with those of its readers; that
is all. Gentlemen no longer swear or fall drunk under the table, or
abduct young ladies and shut them up in lonely country-houses, or so
habitually set about the ruin of their neighbors' wives, as they once
did. Generally, people now call a spade an agricultural implement; they
have not grown decent without having also grown a little squeamish, but
they have grown comparatively decent; there is no doubt about that. They
require of a novelist whom they respect unquestionable proof of his
seriousness, if he proposes to deal with certain phases of life; they
require a sort of scientific decorum. He can no longer expect to be
received on the ground of entertainment only; he assumes a higher
function, something like that of a physician or a priest, and they expect
him to be bound by laws as sacred as those of such professions; they hold
him solemnly pledged not to betray them or abuse their confidence. If he
will accept the conditions, they give him their confidence, and he may
then treat to his greater honor, and not at all to his disadvantage, of
such experiences, such relations of men and women as George Eliot treats
in 'Adam Bede,' in 'Daniel Deronda,' in 'Romola,' in almost all her
books; such as Hawthorne treats in 'The Scarlet Letter;' such as Dickens
treats in 'David Copperfield;' such as Thackeray treats in 'Pendennis,'
and glances at in every one of his fictions; such as most of the masters
of English fiction have at same time treated more or less openly. It is
quite false or quite mistaken to suppose that our novels have left
untouched these most important realities of life. They have only not
made them their stock in trade; they have kept a true perspective in
regard to them; they have relegated them in their pictures of life to the
space and place they occupy in life itself, as we know it in England and
America. They have kept a correct proportion, knowing perfectly well
that unless the novel is to be a map, with everything scrupulously laid
down in it, a faithful record of life in far the greater extent could be
made to the exclusion of guilty love and all its circumstances and

I justify them in this view not only because I hate what is cheap and
meretricious, and hold in peculiar loathing the cant of the critics who
require "passion" as something in itself admirable and desirable in a
novel, but because I prize fidelity in the historian of feeling and
character. Most of these critics who demand "passion" would seem to have
no conception of any passion but one. Yet there are several other
passions: the passion of grief, the passion of avarice, the passion of
pity, the passion of ambition, the passion of hate, the passion of envy,
the passion of devotion, the passion of friendship; and all these have a
greater part in the drama of life than the passion of love, and
infinitely greater than the passion of guilty love. Wittingly or
unwittingly, English fiction and American fiction have recognized this
truth, not fully, not in the measure it merits, but in greater degree
than most other fiction.


Who can deny that fiction would be incomparably stronger, incomparably
truer, if once it could tear off the habit which enslaves it to the
celebration chiefly of a single passion, in one phase or another, and
could frankly dedicate itself to the service of all the passions, all the
interests, all the facts? Every novelist who has thought about his art
knows that it would, and I think that upon reflection he must doubt
whether his sphere would be greatly enlarged if he were allowed to treat
freely the darker aspects of the favorite passion. But, as I have shown,
the privilege, the right to do this, is already perfectly recognized.
This is proved again by the fact that serious criticism recognizes as
master-works (I will not push the question of supremacy) the two great
novels which above all others have, moved the world by their study of
guilty love. If by any chance, if by some prodigious miracle, any
American should now arise to treat it on the level of 'Anna Karenina' and
'Madame Bovary,' he would be absolutely sure of success, and of fame and
gratitude as great as those books have won for their authors.

But what editor of what American magazine would print such a story?

Certainly I do not think any one would; and here our novelist must again
submit to conditions. If he wishes to publish such a story (supposing
him to have once written it), he must publish it as a book. A book is
something by itself, responsible for its character, which becomes quickly
known, and it does not necessarily penetrate to every member of the
household. The father or the mother may say to the child, "I would
rather you wouldn't read that book"; if the child cannot be trusted, the
book may be locked up. But with the magazine and its serial the affair
is different. Between the editor of a reputable English or American
magazine and the families which receive it there is a tacit agreement
that he will print nothing which a father may not read to his daughter,
or safely leave her to read herself.

After all, it is a matter of business; and the insurgent novelist should
consider the situation with coolness and common-sense. The editor did
not create the situation; but it exists, and he could not even attempt to
change it without many sorts of disaster. He respects it, therefore,
with the good faith of an honest man. Even when he is himself a
novelist, with ardor for his art and impatience of the limitations put
upon it, he interposes his veto, as Thackeray did in the case of Trollope
when a contributor approaches forbidden ground.

It does not avail to say that the daily papers teem with facts far fouler
and deadlier than any which fiction could imagine. That is true, but it
is true also that the sex which reads the most novels reads the fewest
newspapers; and, besides, the reporter does not command the novelist's
skill to fix impressions in a young girl's mind or to suggest conjecture.
The magazine is a little despotic, a little arbitrary; but unquestionably
its favor is essential to success, and its conditions are not such narrow
ones. You cannot deal with Tolstoy's and Flaubert's subjects in the
absolute artistic freedom of Tolstoy and Flaubert; since De Foe, that is
unknown among us; but if you deal with them in the manner of George
Eliot, of Thackeray, of Dickens, of society, you may deal with them even
in the magazines. There is no other restriction upon you. All the
horrors and miseries and tortures are open to you; your pages may drop
blood; sometimes it may happen that the editor will even exact such
strong material from you. But probably he will require nothing but the
observance of the convention in question; and if you do not yourself
prefer bloodshed he will leave you free to use all sweet and peaceable
means of interesting his readers.

It is no narrow field he throws open to you, with that little sign to
keep off the grass up at one point only. Its vastness is still almost
unexplored, and whole regions in it are unknown to the fictionist. Dig
anywhere, and do but dig deep enough, and you strike riches; or, if you
are of the mind to range, the gentler climes, the softer temperatures,
the serener skies, are all free to you, and are so little visited that
the chance of novelty is greater among them.


While the Americans have greatly excelled in the short story generally,
they have almost created a species of it in the Thanksgiving story.
We have transplanted the Christmas story from England, while the
Thanksgiving story is native to our air; but both are of Anglo-Saxon
growth. Their difference is from a difference of environment; and the
Christmas story when naturalized among us becomes almost identical in
motive, incident, and treatment with the Thanksgiving story. If I were
to generalize a distinction between them, I should say that the one dealt
more with marvels and the other more with morals; and yet the critic
should beware of speaking too confidently on this point. It is certain,
however, that the Christmas season is meteorologically more favorable to
the effective return of persons long supposed lost at sea, or from a
prodigal life, or from a darkened mind. The longer, darker, and colder
nights are better adapted to the apparition of ghosts, and to all manner
of signs and portents; while they seem to present a wider field for the
intervention of angels in behalf of orphans and outcasts. The dreams of
elderly sleepers at this time are apt to be such as will effect a lasting
change in them when they awake, turning them from the hard, cruel, and
grasping habits of a lifetime, and reconciling them to their sons,
daughters, and nephews, who have thwarted them in marriage; or softening
them to their meek, uncomplaining wives, whose hearts they have trampled
upon in their reckless pursuit of wealth; and generally disposing them to
a distribution of hampers among the sick and poor, and to a friendly
reception of gentlemen with charity subscription papers.

Ships readily drive upon rocks in the early twilight, and offer exciting
difficulties of salvage; and the heavy snows gather quickly round the
steps of wanderers who lie down to die in them, preparatory to their
discovery and rescue by immediate relatives. The midnight weather is
also very suitable for encounter with murderers and burglars; and the
contrast of its freezing gloom with the light and cheer in-doors promotes
the gayeties which merge, at all well-regulated country-houses, in love
and marriage. In the region of pure character no moment could be so
available for flinging off the mask of frivolity, or imbecility, or
savagery, which one has worn for ten or twenty long years, say, for the
purpose of foiling some villain, and surprising the reader, and helping
the author out with his plot. Persons abroad in the Alps, or Apennines,
or Pyrenees, or anywhere seeking shelter in the huts of shepherds or the
dens of smugglers, find no time like it for lying in a feigned slumber,
and listening to the whispered machinations of their suspicious looking
entertainers, and then suddenly starting up and fighting their way out;
or else springing from the real sleep into which they have sunk
exhausted, and finding it broad day and the good peasants whom they had
so unjustly doubted, waiting breakfast for them.

We need not point out the superior advantages of the Christmas season for
anything one has a mind to do with the French Revolution, of the Arctic
explorations, or the Indian Mutiny, or the horrors of Siberian exile;
there is no time so good for the use of this material; and ghosts on
shipboard are notoriously fond of Christmas Eve. In our own logging
camps the man who has gone into the woods for the winter, after
quarrelling with his wife, then hears her sad appealing voice, and is
moved to good resolutions as at no other period of the year; and in the
mining regions, first in California and later in Colorado, the hardened
reprobate, dying in his boots, smells his mother's doughnuts, and
breathes his last in a soliloquized vision of the old home, and the
little brother, or sister, or the old father coming to meet him from
heaven; while his rude companions listen round him, and dry their eyes on
the butts of their revolvers.

It has to be very grim, all that, to be truly effective; and here,
already, we have a touch in the Americanized Christmas story of the
moralistic quality of the American Thanksgiving story. This was seldom
written, at first, for the mere entertainment of the reader; it was meant
to entertain him, of course; but it was meant to edify him, too, and to
improve him; and some such intention is still present in it. I rather
think that it deals more probably with character to this end than its
English cousin, the Christmas story, does. It is not so improbable that
a man should leave off being a drunkard on Thanksgiving, as that he
should leave off being a curmudgeon on Christmas; that he should conquer
his appetite as that he should instantly change his nature, by good
resolutions. He would be very likely, indeed, to break his resolutions
in either case, but not so likely in the one as in the other.

Generically, the Thanksgiving story is cheerfuller in its drama and
simpler in its persons than the Christmas story. Rarely has it dealt
with the supernatural, either the apparition of ghosts or the
intervention of angels. The weather being so much milder at the close of
November than it is a month later, very little can be done with the
elements; though on the coast a northeasterly storm has been, and can be,
very usefully employed. The Thanksgiving story is more restricted in its
range; the scene is still mostly in New England, and the characters are
of New England extraction, who come home from the West usually, or New
York, for the event of the little drama, whatever it may be. It may be
the reconciliation of kinsfolk who have quarrelled; or the union of
lovers long estranged; or husbands and wives who have had hard words and
parted; or mothers who had thought their sons dead in California and find
themselves agreeably disappointed in their return; or fathers who for old
time's sake receive back their erring and conveniently dying daughters.
The notes are not many which this simple music sounds, but they have a
Sabbath tone, mostly, and win the listener to kindlier thoughts and
better moods. The art is at its highest in some strong sketch of Rose
Terry Cooke's, or some perfectly satisfying study of Miss Jewett's, or
some graphic situation of Miss Wilkins's; and then it is a very fine art.
But mostly it is poor and rude enough, and makes openly, shamelessly, for
the reader's emotions, as well as his morals. It is inclined to be
rather descriptive. The turkey, the pumpkin, the corn-field, figure
throughout; and the leafless woods are blue and cold against the evening
sky behind the low hip-roofed, old-fashioned homestead. The parlance is
usually the Yankee dialect and its Western modifications.

The Thanksgiving story is mostly confined in scene to the country; it
does not seem possible to do much with it in town; and it is a serious
question whether with its geographical and topical limitations it can
hold its own against the Christmas story; and whether it would not be
well for authors to consider a combination with its elder rival.

The two feasts are so near together in point of time that they could be
easily covered by the sentiment of even a brief narrative. Under the
agglutinated style of 'A Thanksgiving-Christmas Story,' fiction
appropriate to both could be produced, and both could be employed
naturally and probably in the transaction of its affairs and the
development of its characters. The plot for such a story could easily be
made to include a total-abstinence pledge and family reunion at
Thanksgiving, and an apparition and spiritual regeneration over a bowl of
punch at Christmas.


It would be interesting to know the far beginnings of holiday literature,
and I commend the quest to the scientific spirit which now specializes
research in every branch of history. In the mean time, without being too
confident of the facts, I venture to suggest that it came in with the
romantic movement about the beginning of this century, when mountains
ceased to be horrid and became picturesque; when ruins of all sorts, but
particularly abbeys and castles, became habitable to the most delicate
constitutions; when the despised Gothick of Addison dropped its "k," and
arose the chivalrous and religious Gothic of Scott; when ghosts were
redeemed from the contempt into which they had fallen, and resumed their
place in polite society; in fact, the politer the society; the welcomer
the ghosts, and whatever else was out of the common. In that day the
Annual flourished, and this artificial flower was probably the first
literary blossom on the Christmas Tree which has since borne so much
tinsel foliage and painted fruit. But the Annual was extremely Oriental;
it was much preoccupied with, Haidees and Gulnares and Zuleikas, with
Hindas and Nourmahals, owing to the distinction which Byron and Moore had
given such ladies; and when it began to concern itself with the
actualities of British beauty, the daughters of Albion, though inscribed
with the names of real countesses and duchesses, betrayed their descent
from the well-known Eastern odalisques. It was possibly through an
American that holiday literature became distinctively English in
material, and Washington Irving, with his New World love of the past, may
have given the impulse to the literary worship of Christmas which has
since so widely established itself. A festival revived in popular
interest by a New-Yorker to whom Dutch associations with New-year's had
endeared the German ideal of Christmas, and whom the robust gayeties of
the season in old-fashioned country-houses had charmed, would be one of
those roundabout results which destiny likes, and "would at least be
Early English."

If we cannot claim with all the patriotic confidence we should like to
feel that it was Irving who set Christmas in that light in which Dickens
saw its aesthetic capabilities, it is perhaps because all origins are
obscure. For anything that we positively know to the contrary, the
Druidic rites from which English Christmas borrowed the inviting
mistletoe, if not the decorative holly, may have been accompanied by the
recitations of holiday triads. But it is certain that several plays of
Shakespeare were produced, if not written, for the celebration of the
holidays, and that then the black tide of Puritanism which swept over
men's souls blotted out all such observance of Christmas with the
festival itself. It came in again, by a natural reaction, with the
returning Stuarts, and throughout the period of the Restoration it
enjoyed a perfunctory favor. There is mention of it; often enough in the
eighteenth-century essayists, in the Spectators and Idlers and Tatlers;
but the world about the middle of the last century laments the neglect
into which it had fallen. Irving seems to have been the first to observe
its surviving rites lovingly, and Dickens divined its immense advantage
as a literary occasion. He made it in some sort entirely his for a time,
and there can be no question but it was he who again endeared it to the
whole English-speaking world, and gave it a wider and deeper hold than it
had ever had before upon the fancies and affections of our race.

The might of that great talent no one can gainsay, though in the light of
the truer work which has since been done his literary principles seem
almost as grotesque as his theories of political economy. In no one
direction was his erring force more felt than in the creation of holiday
literature as we have known it for the last half-century. Creation, of
course, is the wrong word; it says too much; but in default of a better
word, it may stand. He did not make something out of nothing; the
material was there before him; the mood and even the need of his time
contributed immensely to his success, as the volition of the subject
helps on the mesmerist; but it is within bounds to say that he was the
chief agency in the development of holiday literature as we have known
it, as he was the chief agency in universalizing the great Christian
holiday as we now have it. Other agencies wrought with him and after
him; but it was he who rescued Christmas from Puritan distrust, and
humanized it and consecrated it to the hearts and homes of all.

Very rough magic, as it now seems, he used in working his miracle, but
there is no doubt about his working it. One opens his Christmas stories
in this later day--'The Carol, The Chimes, The Haunted Man, The Cricket
on the Hearth,' and all the rest--and with "a heart high-sorrowful and
cloyed," asks himself for the preternatural virtue that they once had.
The pathos appears false and strained; the humor largely horseplay; the
character theatrical; the joviality pumped; the psychology commonplace;
the sociology alone funny. It is a world of real clothes, earth, air,
water, and the rest; the people often speak the language of life, but
their motives are as disproportioned and improbable, and their passions
and purposes as overcharged, as those of the worst of Balzac's people.
Yet all these monstrosities, as they now appear, seem to have once had
symmetry and verity; they moved the most cultivated intelligences of the
time; they touched true hearts; they made everybody laugh and cry.

This was perhaps because the imagination, from having been fed mostly
upon gross unrealities, always responds readily to fantastic appeals.
There has been an amusing sort of awe of it, as if it were the channel of
inspired thought, and were somehow sacred. The most preposterous
inventions of its activity have been regarded in their time as the
greatest feats of the human mind, and in its receptive form it has been
nursed into an imbecility to which the truth is repugnant, and the fact
that the beautiful resides nowhere else is inconceivable. It has been
flattered out of all sufferance in its toyings with the mere elements of
character, and its attempts to present these in combinations foreign to
experience are still praised by the poorer sort of critics as
masterpieces of creative work.

In the day of Dickens's early Christmas stories it was thought admirable
for the author to take types of humanity which everybody knew, and to add
to them from his imagination till they were as strange as beasts and
birds talking. Now we begin to feel that human nature is quite enough,
and that the best an author can do is to show it as it is. But in those
stories of his Dickens said to his readers, Let us make believe so-and-
so; and the result was a joint juggle, a child's-play, in which the
wholesome allegiance to life was lost. Artistically, therefore, the
scheme was false, and artistically, therefore, it must perish. It did
not perish, however, before it had propagated itself in a whole school of
unrealities so ghastly that one can hardly recall without a shudder those
sentimentalities at secondhand to which holiday literature was abandoned
long after the original conjurer had wearied of his performance.

Under his own eye and of conscious purpose a circle of imitators grew up
in the fabrication of Christmas stories. They obviously formed
themselves upon his sobered ideals; they collaborated with him, and it
was often hard to know whether it was Dickens or Sala or Collins who was
writing. The Christmas book had by that time lost its direct application
to Christmas. It dealt with shipwrecks a good deal, and with perilous
adventures of all kinds, and with unmerited suffering, and with ghosts
and mysteries, because human nature, secure from storm and danger in a
well-lighted room before a cheerful fire, likes to have these things
imaged for it, and its long-puerilized fancy will bear an endless
repetition of them. The wizards who wrought their spells with them
contented themselves with the lasting efficacy of these simple means;
and the apprentice-wizards and journeyman-wizards who have succeeded them
practise the same arts at the old stand; but the ethical intention which
gave dignity to Dickens's Christmas stories of still earlier date has
almost wholly disappeared. It was a quality which could not be worked so
long as the phantoms and hair-breadth escapes. People always knew that
character is not changed by a dream in a series of tableaux; that a ghost
cannot do much towards reforming an inordinately selfish person; that a
life cannot be turned white, like a head of hair, in a single night, by
the most allegorical apparition; that want and sin and shame cannot be
cured by kettles singing on the hob; and gradually they ceased to make
believe that there was virtue in these devices and appliances. Yet the
ethical intention was not fruitless, crude as it now appears.

It was well once a year, if not oftener, to remind men by parable of the
old, simple truths; to teach them that forgiveness, and charity, and the
endeavor for life better and purer than each has lived, are the
principles upon which alone the world holds together and gets forward.
It was well for the comfortable and the refined to be put in mind of the
savagery and suffering all round them, and to be taught, as Dickens was
always teaching, that certain feelings which grace human nature, as
tenderness for the sick and helpless, self-sacrifice and generosity,
self-respect and manliness and womanliness, are the common heritage of
the race; the direct gift of Heaven, shared equally by the rich and poor.
It did not necessarily detract from the value of the lesson that, with
the imperfect art of the time, he made his paupers and porters not only
human, but superhuman, and too altogether virtuous; and it remained true
that home life may be lovely under the lowliest roof, although he liked
to paint it without a shadow on its beauty there. It is still a fact
that the sick are very often saintly, although he put no peevishness into
their patience with their ills. His ethical intention told for manhood
and fraternity and tolerance, and when this intention disappeared from
the better holiday literature, that literature was sensibly the poorer
for the loss.


But if the humanitarian impulse has mostly disappeared from Christmas
fiction, I think it has never so generally characterized all fiction.
One may refuse to recognize this impulse; one may deny that it is in any
greater degree shaping life than ever before, but no one who has the
current of literature under his eye can fail to note it there. People
are thinking and feeling generously, if not living justly, in our time;
it is a day of anxiety to be saved from the curse that is on selfishness,
of eager question how others shall be helped, of bold denial that the
conditions in which we would fain have rested are sacred or immutable.
Especially in America, where the race has gained a height never reached
before, the eminence enables more men than ever before to see how even
here vast masses of men are sunk in misery that must grow every day more
hopeless, or embroiled in a struggle for mere life that must end in
enslaving and imbruting them.

Art, indeed, is beginning to find out that if it does not make friends
with Need it must perish. It perceives that to take itself from the many
and leave them no joy in their work, and to give itself to the few whom
it can bring no joy in their idleness, is an error that kills. The men
and women who do the hard work of the world have learned that they have a
right to pleasure in their toil, and that when justice is done them they
will have it. In all ages poetry has affirmed something of this sort,
but it remained for ours to perceive it and express it somehow in every
form of literature. But this is only one phase of the devotion of the
best literature of our time to the service of humanity. No book written
with a low or cynical motive could succeed now, no matter how brilliantly
written; and the work done in the past to the glorification of mere
passion and power, to the deification of self, appears monstrous and
hideous. The romantic spirit worshipped genius, worshipped heroism, but
at its best, in such a man as Victor Hugo, this spirit recognized the
supreme claim of the lowest humanity. Its error was to idealize the
victims of society, to paint them impossibly virtuous and beautiful; but
truth, which has succeeded to the highest mission of romance, paints
these victims as they are, and bids the world consider them not because
they are beautiful and virtuous, but because they are ugly and vicious,
cruel, filthy, and only not altogether loathsome because the divine can
never wholly die out of the human. The truth does not find these victims
among the poor alone, among the hungry, the houseless, the ragged; but it
also finds them among the rich, cursed with the aimlessness, the satiety,
the despair of wealth, wasting their lives in a fool's paradise of shows
and semblances, with nothing real but the misery that comes of
insincerity and selfishness.

I do not think the fiction of our own time even always equal to this
work, or perhaps more than seldom so. But as I once expressed, to the
long-reverberating discontent of two continents, fiction is now a finer
art than it, has been hitherto, and more nearly meets the requirements of
the infallible standard. I have hopes of real usefulness in it, because
it is at last building on the only sure foundation; but I am by no means
certain that it will be the ultimate literary form, or will remain as
important as we believe it is destined to become. On the contrary, it is
quite imaginable that when the great mass of readers, now sunk in the
foolish joys of mere fable, shall be lifted to an interest in the meaning
of things through the faithful portrayal of life in fiction, then fiction
the most faithful may be superseded by a still more faithful form of
contemporaneous history. I willingly leave the precise character of this
form to the more robust imagination of readers whose minds have been
nurtured upon romantic novels, and who really have an imagination worth
speaking of, and confine myself, as usual, to the hither side of the
regions of conjecture.

The art which in the mean time disdains the office of teacher is one of
the last refuges of the aristocratic spirit which is disappearing from
politics and society, and is now seeking to shelter itself in aesthetics.
The pride of caste is becoming the pride of taste; but as before, it is
averse to the mass of men; it consents to know them only in some
conventionalized and artificial guise. It seeks to withdraw itself, to
stand aloof; to be distinguished, and not to be identified. Democracy in
literature is the reverse of all this. It wishes to know and to tell the
truth, confident that consolation and delight are there; it does not care
to paint the marvellous and impossible for the vulgar many, or to
sentimentalize and falsify the actual for the vulgar few. Men are more
like than unlike one another: let us make them know one another better,
that they may be all humbled and strengthened with a sense of their
fraternity. Neither arts, nor letters, nor sciences, except as they
somehow, clearly or obscurely, tend to make the race better and kinder,
are to be regarded as serious interests; they are all lower than the
rudest crafts that feed and house and clothe, for except they do this
office they are idle; and they cannot do this except from and through the


A Thanksgiving-Christmas Story
Anthony Trollope
Browbeat wholesome common-sense into the self-distrust
Canon Fairfax,'s opinions of literary criticism
Comfort from the thought that most things cannot be helped
Concerning popularity as a test of merit in a book
Critical vanity and self-righteousness
Critics are in no sense the legislators of literature
Dickens rescued Christmas from Puritan distrust
Fact that it is hash many times warmed over reassures them
Forbear the excesses of analysis
Glance of the common eye, is and always was the best light
Greatest classics are sometimes not at all great
Holiday literature
Imitators of one another than of nature
Jane Austen
Languages, while they live, are perpetually changing
Let fiction cease to lie about life
Long-puerilized fancy will bear an endless repetition
Made them talk as seldom man and never woman talked
Michelangelo's "light of the piazza,"
No greatness, no beauty, which does not come from truth
Novels hurt because they are not true
Plain industry and plodding perseverance are despised
Public wish to be amused rather than edified
Teach what they do not know
Tediously analytical
To break new ground
Unless we prefer a luxury of grief
Vulgarity: bad art to lug it in
What makes a better fashion change for a worse
Whatever is established is sacred with those who do not think


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