Friday, January 8, 2016
American Contribution to the English Novel by Richard Burton 1909
The American Contribution to the English Novel by Richard Burton 1909
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To exclude the living, as we must, in an estimate of the American contribution to the development we have been tracing, is especially unjust. Yet the principle must be applied. The injustice lies in the fact that an important part of the contribution falls on the hither side of 1870 and has to do with authors still active. The modern realistic movement in English fiction has been affected to some degree by the work, has responded to the influence of the two Americans, Howells and James. What has been, accomplished during the last forty years has been largely under their leadership. Mr. Howells, true to his own definition, has practised the more truthful handling of material in depicting chosen aspects of the native life. Mr. James, becoming more interested in British types, has, after a great deal of analysis of his own countrymen, passed by the bridge of the international Novel to a complete absorption in transatlantic studies, making his peculiar application of the realistic formula to the inner life of the spirit: a curious compound, a cosmopolitan Puritan, an urbane student of souls. His share in the British product is perhaps appreciable; but from the native point of view, at least, it would seem as if his earlier work were, and would remain, most representative both because of its motives and methods. Early or late, he has beyond question pointed out the way to many followers in the psychologic path: his influence, perhaps less obvious than Howells', is none the less undisputable. The development in the hands of writers younger than these veterans has been rich, varied, often noteworthy in quality. But of all this it is too soon to speak.
With regard to the fictional evolution on American soil, it is clear that four great writers, excluding the living, separate themselves from the crowd: Irving, Cooper, Poe and Hawthorne. Moreover, two of these, Irving and Poe, are not novelists at all, but masters of the sketch or short story. It will be best, however, for our purpose to give them all some attention, for whatever the form of fiction they used, they are all influential in the development of the Novel.
Other authors of single great books may occur to the student, perhaps clamoring for admission to a company so select. Yet he is likely always to come back and draw a dividing line here. Bret Harte, for instance, is dead, and in the short story of western flavor he was a pioneer of mark, the founder of a genre: probably no other writer is so significant in his field. But here again, although he essayed full-length fiction, it was not his forte. So, too, were it not that Mark Twain still cheers the land of the living with his wise fun, there would be for the critic the question, is he a novelist, humorist or essayist. Is "Roughing It" more typical of his genius than "Tom Sawyer" or "Huckleberry Finn"? How shall we characterize "Puddin' Head Wilson"? Under what category shall we place "A Yankee at the Court of King Arthur" and "Joan of Arc"? The query reminds us once more that literature means personality as well as literary forms and that personality is more important than are they. And again we turn away regretfully (remembering that this is an attempt to study not fiction in all its manifestations, but the Novel) from the charming short stories—little classics in their kind—bequeathed by Aldrich, and are almost sorry that our judgment demands that we place him first as a poet. We think, too, of that book so unique in influence, "Uncle Tom's Cabin," nor forget that, besides producing it, Mrs. Stowe, in such a work as "Old Town Folks," started the long line of studies of New England rustic life which, not confined to that section, have become so welcome a phase of later American art in fiction. Among younger authors called untimely from their labors, it is hard to resist the temptation to linger over such a figure as that of Frank Norris, whose vital way of handling realistic material with epic breath in his unfinished trilogy, gave so great promise for his future.
It may be conceded that nothing is more worth mention in American fiction of the past generation than the extraordinary cultivation of the short-story, which Mr. Brander Matthews dignifies and unifies by a hyphen, in order to express his conviction that it is an essentially new art form, to study which is a fascinating quest, but aside from our main intention.
Having due regard then for perspective, and trying not to confuse historical importance with the more vital interest which implies permanent claims, it seems pretty safe to come back to Irving and Poe, to Cooper and Hawthorne. Even as in the sketch and tale Irving stands alone with such a masterpiece as "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow"; and Poe equally by himself with his tales of psychological horror and mystery, so in longer fiction, Cooper and Hawthorne have made as distinct contributions in the domain of Romance. Their service is as definite for the day of the Romantic spirit, as is that of Howells and James for the modern day of realism so-called. It is not hard to see that Irving even in his fiction is essentially an essayist; that with him story was not the main thing, but that atmosphere, character and style were,—the personal comment upon life. One reads a sketch like "The Stout Gentleman," in every way a typical work, for anything but incident or plot. The Hudson River idyls, it may be granted, have somewhat more of story interest, but Irving seized them, ready-made for his use, because of their value for the picturesque evocation of the Past. He always showed a keen sense of the pictorial and dramatic in legend and history, as the "Alhambra" witnesses quite as truly as the sketches. "Bracebridge Hall" and "The Sketch Book," whatever of the fictional they may contain, are the work of the essayist primarily, and Washington Irving will always, in a critical view, be described as a master of the English essay. No other maker of American literature affords so good an example of the intercolation of essay and fiction: he recalls the organic relation between the Sir Roger de Coverley Papers and the eighteenth century Novel proper of a generation later.
His service to all later writers of fiction was large in that he taught them the use of promising native material that awaited the story-maker. His own use of it, the Hudson, the environs of Manhattan, was of course romantic, in the main. When in an occasional story he is unpleasant in detail or tragic in trend he seems less characteristic—so definitely was he a romanticist, seeking beauty and wishing to throw over life the kindly glamour of imaginative art. It is worth noting, however, that he looked forward rather than back, towards the coming realism, not to the incurable pseudo-romanticism of the late eighteenth century, in his instinct to base his happenings upon the bedrock of truth—the external truth of scene and character and the inner truth of human psychology.
Admirably a modern artist in this respect, his old-fashionedness, so often dilated upon, can easily be overstated. He not only left charming work in the tale, but helped others who came after to use their tools, furthering their art by the study of a good model.
Nothing was more inevitable then that Cooper when he began fiction in mid-manhood should have written the romance: it was the dominant form in England because of Scott. But that he should have realized the unused resources of America and produced a long series of adventure stories, taking a pioneer as his hero and illustrating the western life of settlement in his career, the settlement that was to reclaim a wilderness for a mighty civilization— that was a thing less to be expected, a truly epic achievement. The Leather Stocking Series was in the strictest sense an original performance—the significance of Fenimore Cooper is not likely to be exaggerated; it is quite independent of the question of his present hold upon mature readers, his faults of technique and the truth of his pictures. To have grasped such an opportunity and so to have used it as to become a great man-of-letters at a time when literature was more a private employ than the interest of the general—surely it indicates genuine personality, and has the mark of creative power. To which we may add, that Cooper is still vital in his appeal, as the statistics of our public libraries show.
Moreover, incorrigible romancer that he was, he is a man of the nineteenth century, as was Irving, in the way he instinctively chose near-at-hand native material: he knew the Mohawk Valley by long residence; he knew the Indian and the trapper there; and he depicted these types in a setting that was to him the most familiar thing in the world. In fact, we have in him an illustration of the modern writer who knows he must found his message firmly upon reality. For both Leather-stocking and Chingachgook are true in the broad sense, albeit the white trapper's dialect may be uncertain and the red man exhibit a dignity that seems Roman rather than aboriginal. The Daniel Boone of history must have had, we feel, the nobler qualities of Bumpo; how otherwise did he do what it was his destiny to do? In the same way, the Indian of Cooper is the red man in his pristine home before the day of firewater and Agency methods. It may be that what to us to-day seems a too glorified picture is nearer the fact than we are in a position easily to realize. Cooper worked in the older method of primary colors, of vivid, even violent contrasts: his was not the school of subtleties. His women, for example, strike us as somewhat mechanical; there is a sameness about them that means the failure to differentiate: the Ibsenian psychology of the sex was still to come. But this does not alter the obvious excellencies of the work. Cooper carried his romanticism in presenting the heroic aspects of the life he knew best into other fields where he walked with hardly less success: the revolutionary story illustrated by "The Spy," and the sea-tale of which a fine example is "The Pilot." He had a sure instinct for those elements of fiction which make for romance, and the change of time and place affects him only in so far as it affects his familiarity with his materials. His experience in the United States Navy gave him a sure hand in the sea novels: and in a book like "The Spy" he was near enough to the scenes and characters to use studies practically contemporary. He had the born romanticist's natural affection for the appeal of the past and the stock elements can be counted upon in all his best fiction: salient personalities, the march of events, exciting situations, and ever that arch-romantic lure, the one trick up the sleeve to pique anticipation. Hence, in spite of descriptions that seem over-long, a heavy-footed manner that lacks suppleness and variety, and undeniable carelessness of construction, he is still loved of the young and seen to be a natural raconteur, an improviser of the Dumas-Scott lineage and, even tested by the later tests, a noble writer of romance, a man whom Balzac and Goethe read with admiration: unquestionably influential outside his own land in that romantic mood of expression which, during the first half of the nineteenth century, was so widespread and fruitful.
It is the plainer with every year that Poe's contribution to American fiction, and indeed to that of the nineteenth century, ignoring national boundaries, stands by itself. Whatever his sources—and no writer appears to derive less from the past—he practically created on native soil the tale of fantasy, sensational plot, and morbid impressionism. His cold aloofness, his lack of spiritual import, unfitted him perhaps for the broader work of the novelist who would present humanity in its three dimensions with the light and shade belonging to Life itself. Confining himself to the tale which he believed could be more artistic because it was briefer and so the natural mold for a mono-mood, he had the genius so to handle color, music and suggestion in an atmosphere intense in its subjectivity, that confessed masterpieces were the issue. Whether in the objective detail of "The Murders in the Rue Morgue," with its subtle illusion of realism, or in the nuances and delicatest tonality of "Ligeia," he has left specimens of the different degrees of romance which have not been surpassed, conquering in all but that highest style of romantic writing where the romance lies in an emphasis upon the noblest traits of mankind. He is, it is not too much to say, well-nigh as important to the growth of modern fiction outside the Novel form as he is to that of poetry, though possibly less unique on his prose side. His fascination is that of art and intellect: his material and the mastery wherewith he handles it conjoin to make his particular brand of magic. While some one story of Hoffman or Bulwer Lytton or Stevenson may be preferred, no one author of our time has produced an equal number of successes in the same key. It is instructive to compare him with Hawthorne because of a superficial resemblance with an underlying fundamental distinction. One phase of the Concord romancer's art results in stories which seem perhaps as somber, strange and morbid as those of Poe: "Dr. Heidegger's Experiment," "Rapacinni's Daughter," " The Birth Mark." They stand, of course, for but one side of his power, of which "The Great Stone Face" and "The Snow Image" are the brighter and sweeter. Thus Hawthorne's is a broader and more diversified accomplishment in the form of the tale. But the likeness has to do with subject-matter, not with the spirit of the work. The gloomiest of Hawthorne's short stories are spiritually sound and sweet: Poe's, on the contrary, might be described as unmoral; they seem written by one disdaining all the touchstones of life, living in a land of eyrie where there is no moral law. He would no more than Lamb indict his very dreams. In the case of Hawthorne there is allegorical meaning, the lesson is never far to seek: a basis of common spiritual responsibility is always below one's feet. And this is quite as true of the long romances as of the tales. The result is that there is spiritual tonic in Hawthorne's fiction, while something almost miasmatic rises from Poe, dropping a kind of veil between us and the salutary realities of existence. If Poe be fully as gifted, he is, for this reason, less sanely endowed. It may be conceded that he is not always as shudderingly sardonic and removed from human sympathy as in "The Cask of Amontillado" or "The Black Cat"; yet it is no exaggeration to affirm that he is nowhere more typical, more himself. On the contrary, in a tale like "The Birth Mark," what were otherwise the horror and ultra-realism of it, is tempered by and merged in the suggestion that no man shall with impunity tamper with Nature nor set the delight of the eyes above the treasures of the soul. The poor wife dies, because her husband cares more to remove a slight physical defect than he does for her health and life. So it cannot be said of the somber work in the tale of these two sons of genius that,
"A common grayness silvers everything,"
since the gifts are so differently exercised and the artistic product of totally dissimilar texture. Moreover, Poe is quite incapable of the lovely naivete of "The Snow Image," or the sun-kissed atmosphere of the wonder-book. Humor, except in the satiric vein, is hardly more germane to the genius of Hawthorne than to that of Poe: its occasional exercise is seldom if ever happy.
Although most literary comparisons are futile because of the disparateness of the things compared, the present one seems legitimate in the cases of Poe and Hawthorne, superficially so alike in their shortstory work.
In the romances in which he is, by common consent, our greatest practitioner, to be placed first indeed of all who have written fiction of whatever kind on American soil, Hawthorne never forsakes—subtle, spiritual, elusive, even intangible as he may seem— the firm underfooting of mother earth. His themes are richly human, his psychologic truth (the most modern note of realism) unerring in its accuracy and insight. As part of his romantic endowment, he prefers to place plot and personages in the dim backward of Time, gaining thus in perspective and ampleness of atmosphere. He has told us as much in the preface to "The House of The Seven Gables," that wonderful study in subdued tone-colors. That pronunciamento of a great artist (from which in an earlier chapter quotation has been made) should not be overlooked by one who essays to get a hint of his secret. He is always exclusively engaged with questions of conscience and character; like George Meredith, his only interest is in soul-growth. This is as true in the "Marble Faun" with its thought of the value of sin in the spiritual life, or in "The Blithedale Romance," wherein poor Zenobia learns how infinitely hard it is for a woman to oppose the laws of society, as it is in the more obvious lesson of "The Scarlet Letter." In this respect the four romances are all of a piece: they testify to their spiritual parentage. "The Scarlet Letter," if the greatest, is only so for the reason that the theme is deepest, most fundamental, and the by-gone New England setting most sympathetic to the author's loving interest. Plainly an allegory, it yet escapes the danger of becoming therefore poor fiction, by being first of all a study of veritable men and women, not lay-figures to carry out an argument. The eyes of the imagination can always see Esther Prynne and Dimmesdale, honest but weak man of God, the evil Chillingworth and little Pearl who is all child, unearthly though she be, a symbol at once of lost innocence and a hope of renewed purity. No pale abstractions these; no folk in fiction are more believed in: they are of our own kindred with whom we suffer or fondly rejoice. In a story so metaphysical as " The House of The Seven Gables," full justice to which has hardly been done (it was Hawthorne's favorite), while the background offered by the historic old mansion is of intention low-toned and dim, there is no obscurity, though plenty of innuendo and suggestion. The romance is a noble specimen of that use of the vague which never falls into the confusion of indeterminate ideas. The theme is startlingly clear: a sin is shown working through generations and only to find expiation in the fresh health of the younger descendants: life built on a lie must totter to its fall. And the shell of all this spiritual seething—the gabled Salem house— may at last be purified and renovated for a posterity which, because it is not paralyzed by the dark past, can also start anew with hope and health, while every room of the old home is swept through and cleansed by the wholesome winds of heaven.
Forgetting for a moment the immense spiritual meaning of this noble quartet of romances, and regarding them as works of art in the straiter sense, they are felt to be practically blameless examples of the principle of adapting means to a desired end. As befits the nature of the themes, the movement in each case is slow, pregnant with significance, cumulative in effect, the tempo of each in exquisite accord with the particular motive: compared with "The Scarlet Letter," "The House of The Seven Gables" moves somewhat more quickly, a slight increase to suit the action: it is swiftest of all in "The Blithedale Romance," with its greater objectivity of action and interest, its more mundane air: while there is a cunning unevenness in the two parts of "The Marble Faun," as is right for a romance which first presents a tragic situation (as external climax) and then shows in retarded progress that inward drama of the soul more momentous than any outer scene or situation can possibly be. After Donatello's deed of death, because what follows is psychologically the most important part of the book, the speed slackens accordingly. Quiet, too, and unsensational as Hawthorne seems, he possessed a marked dramatic power. His denouements are overwhelming in grip and scenic value: the stage effect of the scaffold scene in "The Scarlet Letter," the murder scene in the "Marble Faun," the tragic close of Zenobia's career in "The Blithedale Romance," such scenes are never arbitrary and detached; they are tonal, led up to by all that goes before. The remark applies equally to that awful picture in "The House of The Seven Gables," where the Judge sits dead in his chair and the minutes are ticked off by a seemingly sentient clock. An element in this tonality is naturally Hawthorne's style: it is the best illustration American literature affords of excellence of pattern in contrast with the "purple patch" manner of writing so popular in modern diction.
Congruity, the subjection of the parts to the whole, and to the end in view—the doctrine of key— Hawthorne illustrates all this. If we do not mark passages and delectate over phrases, we receive an exquisite sense of harmony—and harmony is the last word of style. It is this power which helps to make him a great man-of-letters, as well as a master of romance. One can imagine him neither making haste to furnish "copy" nor pausing by the way for ornament's sake. He knew that the only proper decoration was an integral efflorescence of structure. He looked beyond to the fabric's design: a man decently poor in this world's gear, he was more concerned with good work than with gain. Of such are art's kingdom of heaven.
Are there flaws in the weaving? They are small indeed. His didacticism is more in evidence in the tales than in the romances, where the fuller body allows the writer to be more objective: still, judged by present-day standards, there are times when he is too obviously the preacher to please modern taste. In "The Great Stone Face," for instance, it were better, one feels, if the moral had been more veiled, more subtly implied. As to this, it is well to remember that criticism changes its canons with the years and that Hawthorne simply adapted himself (unconsciously, as a spokesman of his day) to contemporaneous standards. His audience was less averse from the principle that the artist should on no account usurp the pulpit's function. If the artist-preacher had a golden mouth, it was enough. This has perhaps always been the attitude of the mass of mankind.
A defect less easy to condone is this author's attempts at humor. They are for the most part lumbering and forced: you feel the effort. Hawthorne lacked the easy manipulation of this gift and his instinct served him aright when he avoided it, as most often he did. A few of the short stories are conceived in the vein of burlesque, and such it is a kindness not to name. They give pain to any who love and revere so mighty a spirit. In the occasional use of humor in the romances, too, he does not always escape just condemnation: as where Judge Pincheon is described taking a walk on a snowy morning down the village street, his visage wreathed in such spacious smiles that the snow on either side of his progress melts before the rays.
For some the style of Hawthorne may now be felt to possess a certain artificiality: the price paid for that effect of stateliness demanded by the theme and suggestive also of the fact that the words were written over half a century ago. In these days of photographic realism of word and idiom, our conception of what is fit in diction has suffered a sea-change. Our ear is adjusted to another tune. Admirable as have been the gains in broadening the native resources of speech by the introduction of old English elements, the eighteenth century and the early years of the nineteenth can still teach us, and it is not beyond credence that the eventual modern ideal of speech may react to an equilibrium of mingled native and foreign-fetched words. In such an event a writer like Hawthorne will be confirmed in his mastery.
Remarkable, Indeed, and latest in time has been the romantic reaction from the extremes of realistic presentation: it has given the United States, even as it has England, some sterling fiction. This we can see, though it is a phenomenon too recent to offer clear deductions as yet. What appears to be the main difference between it and the romantic inheritance from Scott and Hawthorne? One, if not the chief divergence, would seem to be the inevitable degeneration which comes from haste, mercantile pressure, imitation and lack of commanding authority. There is plenty of technique, comparatively little personality. Yet it may be unfair to the present to make the comparison, for the incompetents buzz in our ears, while time has mercifully stilled the bogus romances of G. P. R. James, et id omne genus.
But allowing for all distortion of time, a creative figure like that of Hawthorne still towers, serene and alone, above the little troublings of later days, and like his own Stone Face, reflects the sun and the storm, bespeaking the greater things of the human spirit.
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