A Pestilence of Novels

H.L. Mencken

The Smart Set/January, 1913


NOVELS in all directions! Novels by the hundredweight, the barrel, the acre and the archipelago! Novels hip-deep in my studio, and overflowing into my boudoir, my eating room and my oratory, and even into my bathroom! Stepping out of my shower this morning, my eyes full of water, I slipped upon one Indiana masterpiece and came down heavily — being now very buxom, nay, matronly, in figure — upon another. And all day the express wagons and autotrucks drove up with their romantic burdens, until my butler and my bouncer were full of weariness and charley horse, and I had to recruit a couple of neighboring blackamoors to help them haul in the packages. Novels, novels, novels! Novels bound in sober blues, in bucolic greens, in leering purples, in strident scarlets! Novels about stolen jewels, lost wills, flirtatious widows, daring young stockbrokers, conspiring ambassadors, struggling artists, cavian polygamists, pursuits by airship, secret passions, innocent adulteries, wholesale deviltries! Novels that suggest paprika, peaches a la Melba, garlic, macaroons, wild duck, honest pot-au-feu! Novels dripping eau de cologne, bichloride, buttermilk, mayonnaise, goose grease! Novels giving out vague hints of toilet waters, sachet powders, funeral wreaths —

(Why, indeed, has no publisher ever thought of perfuming his novels? The final refinement of publishing! Barabbas turned Petronius! For instance, consider the pastoral romances of Gene Stratton-Porter. They have a subtle flavor of new-mown hay already; why not add the actual essence, and so help imagination spread its wings? For the autobiographical pages of Jack London, the pungent, hospitable smell of a first-class saloon— that ineffable mingling of Maryland rye, cigar smoke, stale malt liquor, radishes, potato salad and — blutwurst. For the Dartmoor sagas of Eden Phillpotts, the warm, ammoniacal bouquet of cows, poultry and yokels. For Hall Caine, musk and frankincense. For the “Dodo” school, violets and Russian cigarettes. For Mrs. Glyn and her friends, the fragrant blood of the red, red rose. For the venerable Howells, lavender and mignonette. For Zola, Rochefort and wet leather. For Mrs. Humphry Ward, lilies of the valley. For Marie Corelli, tuberoses and brimstone. For Richard Harding Davis, carnations. For Upton Sinclair — but here I leave you to make your own choice. All I offer is the general idea. It has been tried in the theater. Well do I remember the first weeks of “Florodora” at the Casino, with a manikin in the lobby squirting “La Flor de Florodora” upon all us Florodorans; I was put on trial for my life when I got home. Why not try it on books? Why not caress the nose as well as the eye?)

But as I was saying, novels, novels, novels! Novels rearing themselves in great pyramids, bastions, mounds, obelisks! Novels innumerable, illimitable! And yet, I regret to report, not a single first-rate novel among them. The best of them is no more than an honest union job, a safe and sound piece of writing, a triumph of technique over lack of inspiration. Which best of them, unless I err, is Thorley Weir, by E.F. Benson (Lippincott). Benson is the man who wrote the original “Dodo,” but when the lady novelists of England began turning out a “Dodo” a week he abandoned the field of epigrammatic intrigue for that of the comedy of manners, and since then he has produced a number of highly diverting things, especially “Mrs. Ames.” I told you about “Mrs. Ames” a year or so ago, in terms, as I recall them, of eloquent praise. I lament that I cannot heap the same encomiums upon Thorley Weir. It is workmanlike, it is shipshape, it is the product of a novelist who understands novel writing as thoroughly as Johann Sebastian Bach understood polyphony, but it lacks the final touch, the flavor of sincerity. Here and there the characters are pulled about in a cavalier and too-businesslike manner; in the very middle the chief of them is transformed boldly from a genial old rascal into a beetle-browed villain.

This fellow bears the name of Arthur Craddock, and fifty years of celibacy have left him with hardening arteries and a great loneliness in his heart. His profession is the discovery of unappreciated geniuses, an enterprise in which he is helped by a thorough knowledge of art in all its branches and a keen sense of what the public wants. Once he finds such a genius, he relieves the poor devil’s inevitable poverty, slaps him encouragingly on the back, and takes an option on his work for three years. Then, being a critic as well as a connoisseur, he proceeds to cry up his find in the newspapers, and magazines. And then, being an art dealer and a play broker as well as a critic, he proceeds to cash in. The business would seem to be as certain in its profits as that of the Standard Oil Company. But, alas for poor Craddock, it has pitfalls to rival those of a Mexican mining company, and into one of these he pitches headlong on page 252, and when the chronicle closes with page 346, he is still immersed to his neck, and, what is sadder still, his best girl, Miss Joyce Wroughton, is yielding her coral lips to Mr. Charles Lathom, the rising young portrait painter.

Lathom is one of Craddock’s discoveries, and he is docile and grateful until Frank Armstrong, another one, whispers rebellion into his ear. Then he runs amuck in true novel hero fashion, and when the smoke clears away he has repudiated his bargain, stolen Joyce from under Craddock’s nose, and informed the valetudinarian Mr. Wroughton, Joyce’s papa, that the Reynolds he sold to Mr. Ward, the rich American, for five thousand pounds, really brought ten thousand, the balance having stuck to Craddock’s hands. In order to make us approve all this blackjacking of an accomplished merchant, Mr. Benson has to turn him into a soulless Shylock, and the transformation, as I have said, is achieved ineptly, and so somewhat irritatingly. One sympathizes with Craddock when Lathom and Armstrong fall upon him: it seems a shame that his actual benefits should be so quickly forgotten. But aside from this large lump in the middle of the spine, Thorley Weir is a very graceful, charming confection. You will enjoy Craddock until he sprouts his horns, and you will enjoy even more the amazing cavortings of old Lady Crowborough, Joyce’s grandmother, who is still a flirt at eighty-eight and full of excellent advice to young ladies in love. Armstrong, too, is an entertaining fellow, with his saturnine humor and his bulldog pugnacity, and so, for that matter, is Lathom, for all his change of front. The book, I daresay, will not live beyond its brief day, but I found it more amusing than any other in the current crop.

Far below it are such things as “His Great Adventure,” by Robert Herrick (Macmillan), “Footprints Beneath the Snow,” by Henry Bordeaux (Duffield), and “The Wondrous Wife,” by Charles Marriott (Bobbs-Merrill), all of them by authors of a certain repute, and all of them dull beyond expression. In the first named, Mr. Herrick tries to write a tale of adventure — all about a starving young dramatist who befriends a dying millionaire, and is deluged with money for his pains, and then proceeds to spend it as a theatrical angel. The author of “Together” would do well to return to his proper business; we have enough MacGraths and McCutcheons as it is. “Footprints Beneath the Snow” is another maudlin story by the French platitudinarian whose “The Fear of Living” was published with a great nourish of trumpets a year or so ago. It tells us how Mme. Therese Romenay, wife of a Paris architect, runs away from her husband with one André Norans, and how Norans is killed in an Alpine avalanche and Therese badly hurt, and how Romenay finally forgives her and takes her back. The thing is full of mush; it belongs to that French reaction toward the copybook moralities of which Eugene Brieux is the patron saint. “The Wondrous Wife” is cut from the same cloth. It tells how Margaret Lisle, separated from her unfaithful husband and in love with a dashing young engineer, goes back to the former when he falls ill. I venture the guess that it belongs to Mr. Marriott’s apprentice days. He has done creditable work in “The Catfish.” But here he merely fills page after page with commonplace.

“Circe’s Daughter,” by Priscilla Craven (Duffield), is in the height of the fashion: it deals with the effects of heredity and might do service as a eugenical — or anti-eugenical — tract. Is it possible for the daughter of such a woman as Sybil Iverson to be virtuous — Sybil alias Circe, the heroine of a hundred scandals, the Lorelei, the man hunter, even the enchantress of kings? Miss Craven attempts a copious answer, but ends by begging the question. One of Sybil’s two daughters goes her own route, though with prudent reservations. The other turns out a man hater, an iceberg, a vestal — in her own phrase, a “throwback” to remote ancestors, perhaps even to the primordial asexual cell. She is almost, if not quite, sexless. It gives her no more joy to kiss a man than to kiss a china dog. In the end she goes off to Canada to try apple ranching, leaving not even the whisper of a whisper behind her. As for the other and more natural daughter, Claudia by name, she marries Gilbert Currey, K.C., and after a series of desperate flirtations, none of them leading to her actual downfall, she is left an interesting widow, and presently weds Colin Paton, whom she loves with monogamous ardor. There is also a son of the house, Lieutenant Jack Iverson, of the Blues. He crowns a long apprenticeship at stage doors by marrying the Girlie Girl, a star of the music halls; but one night a curtain falls upon her and converts her into a pious invalid, and Jack is so affected thereby that he, too, takes to virtue. A somewhat puzzling story. Its moral seems to be that even eugenics occasionally slips a cog.

The merit of “Van Cleve,” by Mary S. Watts (Macmillan), lies in its unfailing good spirits, its air of gusto. The -saving grace of human existence, as Mrs. Watts sees it, is its absurdity, and I suppose she is right. The one great defect that all the world religions have in common is that they allow the Creator no humor. He is always depicted as one to whom the fall of a sparrow is a serious matter, and the fall of a Sunday school superintendent (a far more frequent accident) a cause of acute grief. Nothing, of course, could be more unlikely. It is vastly easier to believe that the fall of a Sunday school superintendent causes mirth instead of grief in Heaven, as it undoubtedly does on earth and in Hell, and that it is sometimes arranged for the deliberate purpose of producing that mirth, just as the fall of a servant girl is cunningly arranged by the small boy who anoints the kitchen stairs with soap. Thus viewed, the everyday transactions of life, and even the majority of its catastrophes, lose most of their seriousness, and hence most of their painfulness. If the rheumatism which now bubbles in my knees is, after all, nothing worse than a joke, then I am quite willing to join in the laugh. It may be somewhat difficult, at the start, to do so, but practice makes perfect. Most of us have got so far that we can laugh at our stiff knees and barked shins of last month. The Puritan, true enough, can’t do it, for he sees in all such manifestations the rage of a savage and unrelenting enemy, but we heathen can do it. And it is but a step to laughing at the ills of last week, yesterday and today. Few of them last — a joke quickly wears thin — and few of them leave permanent damage behind them.

In all this, to be sure, I may be crediting Mrs. Watts with heresies undreamt of by her theology. She may be, for all I know, a Methodist in good standing, and as such view appendicitis as a punishment for sleeping late on the Sab bath. But if that is her interpretation of the eternal mysteries, then why does she treat the hopes and heartburnings of Mr. Van Cleve Kendrick so lightly? And why does she carry her good humor into the description of even drearier matters — for instance, the death of young Philip Cortwright on the bloody field of San Juan, and the lamentable seduction of Miss Paula Jameson, and the trial and condemnation of young Bob Gilbert therefor? All of these events are treated cynically, even with a touch of malice. As for me, I find the merit of the story in that very fact. It gets away from the stupid seriousness, the solemn donkeyishness of our current novels; it borrows something of the lordly air of Meredith and Henry James; it depicts a group of typical Americans, not as heaven-kissing heroes and heroines, but as rather pathetic comedians, which is what they really are. This Van Cleve Kendrick is a fellow you all know: a pushing, unimaginative, laborious, “right thinking” citizen, good to his womenkind, honest enough to escape jail, an advocate of safety and sanity. He has a heart, too: he loves Lorrie Gilbert, and he waits for her doggishly until the youth of both of them is spent. I think that Mrs. Watts comes close here to the tragedy of everyday — I mean in the scene wherein Van and Lorrie fall into each other’s arms at last, he with his hair grown thin, she with her streak or two of gray. When I say tragedy, of course, I don’t mean the tragedy that makes the eyes pop, but the tragedy that stirs up a pitying, good-humored smile. Put Van Cleve beside the common novel hero, by Dress Suit out of Steam Yacht — and what a difference, m’luds; what a difference! . . . In short, a novel worth reading, if not actually a novel worth cherishing. Its author has her sails spread and a fair wind behind her. She will go farther than most.

An interlude of trade goods — tales of mystery, ballads of cruel wills, searches for lost jewels, the feats of superhuman detectives. In “Love in a Hurry,” by Gelett Burgess (Bobbs-Merrill), we have a hero who must marry in so-and-so-many hours, minutes, seconds — ah, the old stock company, the “sure fire” stuff! His name is Hall Bonistelle, he is a fashionable photographer by profession, and the amount at stake is four million dollars. Various charmers try to shanghai him, but at the last one finds him safely sutured to Miss Flodie Fisher, the queen of his reception room. In “The Eye of Dread,” by Payne Erskine (Little-Brown), we have a hero accused of his own murder; in “The Thousandth Woman,” by E. W. Hornung (Bobbs-Merrill), we have one who gets into the net of a new-fangled deductive detective, and has a deuce of a time getting out; and in “Alias the Night Wind,” by Varick Vanardy (Dillingham), we have one who is charged with robbing a bank, and who revenges himself upon the gendarmes by leading them a headlong chase, and by treating them to sound thrashings whenever they come close to him. Three fugitives from justice — and all of them innocent. What a world! Their names, in order, are Peter Cragmile, Jr., Sweep Cazalet and Bingham Harvard. The ladies who love and trust them are Amalia, Blanche and Kate. What a world! They all go free in the end. . . . What a world!

In “The Inner Man,” a translation from the French by Florence Crewe-Jones (Dillingham), the proceedings are even more astounding. The very first chapter introduces us to a miracle: Gabriel Mirande, kneeling by the grave of his loved one, Mme. Simone Castillan (she has married the other fellow), hears her cry: “I am stifling — stifling! Where am I? Air! Air! What is this — on my face?” Gabriel jumps up, rushes off for the gravediggers and has Simone exhumed. She is actually alive! And what is the explanation? The explanation is that Gabriel is full of a serum discovered by his master, M. le Professeur Biron, which serum confers the gift of second sight. “He who is injected with it,” says Prof. Biron, “can read the thoughts of others — as if he heard their voice — it lasts some hours. He becomes the receiver — as in wireless telegraphy. Keep the secret — keep it at any cost. If not, they will think you are a mad man. A secret — my last wish.” Whereupon the professeur breathes his last, leaving Gabriel that unearthly monopoly. No need to tell you that he uses it well. Set beside him, all other detectives, including even Sherlock Holmes, take on the aspect of imbecile children. He is far above analyzing cigar ashes, measuring hats, examining thumbprints, developing retinal images. All he has to do is to take a dose of his serum, and at once he is prepared to pump out the minds of all the criminals in France. I match this Gabriel Mirande against any sleuth invented by our own fictioneers. It will be many a day, I venture to opine, before ever he is knocked out in fair combat.

The art of novel writing, indeed, is being pushed to its limits. All the standard plots are now brought up to an almost unimaginable degree of refinement. For example, the old plot of the American heiress and the foreign count. A few years ago it was sufficient for the heiress to marry the count and live unhappily ever after. But in “The Unafraid,” by Eleanor M. Ingram (Lippincott), there is a super-count, and he begins business by stealing the heiress from the count, who is his younger brother. The name of the poor girl is Delight Warren, and she goes to Montenegro to marry Count Michael Balsic, or Lieutenant Balsic, or Gospodin Balsic, as you please. But she is met at the wharf by Count Stefan of the same house, and two days later he marries her himself. Not that Stefan is a scoundrel. Far from it, indeed! As the able illustrator, Professor Edmund Frederick, has drawn him, he is a handsome young man in the costume worn by Donald Brian in “The Merry Widow”— a handsome young man, seven feet five inches in height, standing on the topmost crag of one of his native mountains, against a salmon pink and lemon yellow sky. What is more, Delight learns to love him, and on page 368 it is announced that a young count is expected, and that his name will be Danilo. She never mourns Count Michael. This gentleman, in truth, turns out to be a bad lot, and on page 360 he is shot by Stefan.

With “The Confessions of a Debutante,” by some anonymous confectioner {Houghton-Mifflin), I will not trouble you: as Eddie Foy says, ’tis a pretty thing. It comes in oiled paper and a cardboard box, apparently for presentation at Christmas to helpless relatives. The debutante bears the name of Peggy and is beloved by two elegant gentlemen, Mr. Gerald Winthrop and the Count de Rochfort (To the Printer: Don’t make it Roquefort !). Peggy accepts Gerald and the Count sheds a respectful tear. The same sort of oiled paper protects “Lady Laughter,” by Ralph Henry Barbour (Lippincott). Here the binding is lavender in color, and there is a picture label showing a very pretty girl with vermilion hair. Mr. Barbour, it appears, has written no less than ten such books, “each . . . elaborately illustrated in color, with page decorations in tint throughout, and handsomely bound, with medallion inset in colors on the cover . . . and enclosed in a decorated box.” We are still among the violets and gumdrops in “A Rose of Old Quebec,” by Anne Hollingsworth Wharton (Lippincott) , the chronicle of a sad, sweet attachment between young Captain Nelson, of the Albemarle, and Miss Mary Thompson, daughter to the bluff old Scotch-Canadian, Mr. Sandy Thompson. The young captain is for wedding Mary forthwith, despite old Sandy’s opposition, but a letter miscarries and he is left waiting at the church, and so he sails in the Albemarle, a bachelor still. Years later, after each has found another mate, they meet again in London. The Captain is now a belted earl and the idol of his country, but he keeps a soft spot in his heart for little Mary.

“His Father’s Wife,” by J. E. Patterson (Macmillan), introduces us to the stodgy peasants of East Anglia, a race apparently as dull and disagreeable as Mr. Phillpotts’s hinds of Dartmoor. Aaron Rugwood, a middle-aged widower, marries his pretty ward, young Barbara. His sailor son, Roger, is already in love with her, and before long she is in love with Roger. When the inevitable crash comes, Aaron commits suicide, and Roger and Barbara disappear together. Mr. Patterson is as elephantine in manner as the people he describes; I have found his book very heavy reading. Livelier stuff, but still uninspired, is to be found in “Valentine,” by Grant Richards (Houghton-Mifflin), which has a dashing, airshipping hero with that substratum of honest worth one always finds in novel heroes; and in “The End of Her Honeymoon,” by Mrs. Belloc Lowndes (Scribner), a tale of mystery redeemed by a truly surprising denouement; and in “The Terrible Twins,” by Edgar Jepson (Bobbs-Merrill), in which two highly improbable English children entertain with jejune deviltries; and in “The Adventures of Captain O’Shea,” by Ralph D. Paine (Scribner), a series of four picturesque novelettes, each with a new Captain Kettle as its central figure; and in “Ring for Nancy,” by Ford Madox Hueffer (Bobbs-Merrill), and “And Then Came Jean,” by Robert Alexander Wason (Small-Maynard), farcical pieces which tickle the midriff pleasantly.

Novels, novels, novels! Did I say that all were stale, unprofitable and lacking in distinction? Then I forgot! “Youth’s Encounter,” by Compton Mackenzie (Appleton), the history of a boy from his third year to his eighteenth. There is good stuff here: illuminating glimpses of a boy’s mind at work, grappling with the great problems of adolescence, reacting against the collective boy mind of school and playground, patiently testing and estimating an endless succession of new ideas. Michael Fane is no barbarian Huckleberry Finn, innocently roving the wild, but a youngster in the midst of a highly complex and sophisticated society. He lives in a good London neighborhood, he has a governess, he goes to a public school, he is not unaware of social distinctions; when we leave him he is about to enter Oxford. But for all that he remains the Eternal Boy, and a savage under his Eton collar and stovepipe hat. One has only to read Chapter IV to recognize his reality — that chapter describing his labors and diversions at twelve or thereabout: his elaborate schemes for deceiving his schoolmasters, his practical jokes upon cooks and gardeners, his nocturnal expeditions up dark alleys and along backyard fences, his infinite pains at football, his general destructiveness and happy lack of conscience, his scorn for the female of the species. Later on Michael proceeds to higher things. He oscillates between piety and skepticism, he gropes vaguely toward a lifework, he becomes aware of women. He discovers the supreme loveliness of the world — and walks full tilt into its nastiness. He survives a gigantic collapse of ideals. He begins to evolve a point of view, a saving wariness, a working philosophy. Every step is perfectly accounted for and brilliantly described. The boy has adventures that are far from typical, and naturally enough, they color him and condition him; but at bottom, as I have said, he is the boy that all of us have been. A novel worth looking into. Within its limits, an excellent piece of writing.

Complementary to “Youth’s Encounter” is “When I Was a Little Girl,” by Zona Gale (Macmillan), a somewhat curious mixture of recollection and fantasy, shot through with the strange, pale colors that Miss Gale always uses so effectively. Never having been a little girl myself, I cannot bear witness to parts of this chronicle, but the New Boy, at all events, is as genuinely boyish as Michael Fane, and the breath of life is in Grandmother Beers. Few of the other favorite lady fictioneers do as well as Miss Gale this autumn. For example, in “The Custom of the Country,” by Edith Wharton (Scribner), I can find nothing save a somewhat obvious study of a social climber — a well-mannered and amusing story, to be sure, but not one that contributes anything of novelty or importance to the type, and surely not one that increases the stature of the author of “Ethan Frome.” Poor Ethan, indeed, is dogging Mrs. Wharton: she must labor prodigiously to surpass him, or even to equal him. Nor do I note anything to arrest the literary historian in “The Story of Waitstill Baxter,” by Kate Douglas Wiggin (Houghton-Mifflin), a tale of New England village life two or three generations ago, in a manner oscillating ineptly between irony and sentimentality. Mrs. Wiggin, I suppose, has worked in sugar paste far too long to have a hand for hewing flint. Her Deacon Foxwell Baxter often eludes her. He is one of those harsh, forthright, steel-jointed New Engenders who cry aloud for a Zola or a Dostoevsky, and some day, let us hope, a novelist of that larger talent will arise to do him justice. We had a view of his background in the “Ethan Frome” aforesaid, but our national gallery still lacks the man himself.

I dip into a dozen other novels without encountering anything worth reporting at length. Taking one with another, the English importations show vastly better workmanship than the things made at home, but the significance of that fact may be easily over estimated. All it shows, I venture, is that our American publishers read the English reviews, and are guided by the critics they profess to despise. In dealing with American work they must depend upon their own unaided judgment, and that judgment, if the books they print really represent it, is unsound four times out of five. In the case of their importations, which are printed and reviewed in England before they bring them in, they err only three times out of five. Thus it is almost an even bet that a new novel of English origin will be reasonably entertaining, or, at all events, that it will be written in reasonably intelligible English. This is true of “Succession,” by Ethel Sidgwick (Small-Maynard), but when so much has been said, nearly all has been said. In a word, I can discern no sign of genius in this Miss Sidgwick. She is an accomplished journeyman fictioneer, with a sharp eye for oddity in character and considerable skill at creating and maintaining atmosphere, but she overwrites everything unmercifully, and at the end of it all — where are we? As for me, I am fast asleep — and dreaming of Falk on his crazy tugboat, of Hurstwood in his Bowery lodging house, of McTeague and his gigantic golden tooth, of Evelyn Innes, the Marchioness of Chesterford, Pantagruel, Tom Jones, Huckleberry Finn . . .

But, as I have said, you will find competent writing in these English novels, and a disposition to imitate worthy models, and so they are always less tedious than the generality of their American rivals. I dredge up a few examples from the stream flowing past: “Youth Will be Served,” by Dolf Wyllarde (Lane); “Divided,” by Francis Bancroft (Small-Maynard); “Memoirs of Mimosa,” by Anne Elliot (Moffat-Yard); and “Richard Furlong,” by E. Temple Thurston (Appleton), the first a sort of protest against the sacrifices that maternity demands of women, the second a well-managed story of the Boer War, the third a study of a coquette, and the fourth a picture of the lower levels of artistic Bohemia in London. Uninspired, all! In not one of them do you feel that “obscure, inner necessity” of which Joseph Conrad tells. But though they are thus trade goods pure and simple, they are yet trade goods of a very superior quality. You will get as much gentle stimulation (or had I better say caressing?) out of the story of Gillian Joyce’s torturous upbringing of her son Clarence, or out of young Dicky Furlong’s adventures in art and amour, or out of the sexual duelling of Mimosa Leighton-Folingsby — just as much, let us say, as out of hearing a symphony by Anton Bruckner. That is to say, you will be diverted without being excited, fed without being filled. “Heart of Darkness,” a single short story, is worth all the novels of this sort printed since January 1, 1875. But half a dozen of them are worth all the American best-sellers since “Ben Hur.”

Which brings us, by devious paths, to “Down Among Men,” by Will Levington Comfort (Doren), a novelist with a great gift for vivid and brilliant narration, and an even greater gift for jejune and garrulous philosophizing. The same disconcerting combination of qualities is to be found in Jack London, but he commonly lets the former obscure the latter. In the compositions of Mr. Comfort the process is reversed. That is to say, he seems to suffer from an overpowering impulse to bury his story — usually a very good one — beneath enormous dunes and culm piles of parts of speech. This vast emission of words, let it be said, is not always tedious. They are pretty words, they are cleverly arranged, they are given dignity by a copious use of capitals. Their first effect is a sort of enchantment: one wallows in them esthetically, emotionally, sensually, as one wallows in the obscene polyphony of Richard Strauss. But when reflection begins to drive out mere cerebral sensation, irritation follows upon enjoyment. In brief, it becomes slowly apparent that the meaning of all these burbling adjectives and arresting metaphors is often impenetrably obscure, and that when they are actually intelligible, their content is usually nothing more than an intellectual milk toast, a mixture of the obvious and the merely ornamental.

The canned reviews speak eloquently of Mr. Comfort’s idealism, but all I can find in it is a furious restatement of the Christian view of women. We all know the twofold root (to borrow from Schopenhauer) of that view. On the one hand it exalts woman as the beyond man, the trans-mammal, the near-angel, the missionary from Heaven; and on the other hand it brands her as the eternal temptress, the Lorelei, the high priestess of the Devil. The Madonna and Mother Eve, the celestial virgins and the hellish succubi — how curious that these discordant ladies should appear equally authentic and typical to the Early Fathers! And yet, as Havelock Ellis has pointed out, they survive in our dominant mythology to this day.

Woman is purity, inspiration, virtue — but man had better avoid her if he would be saved! Mr. Comfort adopts this doctrine bodily, merely substituting “save others” for “be saved.” The hero of “Down Among Men,” like the hero of his “Fate Knocks at the Door,” is a gyneolator who fears his goddess. She has led him up to grace, she has shown him the Upward Path, the Way to Consecration (I essay to capitalize in the Comfortian manner) — but the moment she lets go his hand, he takes to his heels. What is worse, he sends a friend to her, to explain in detail how unfavorably any further communion with her would affect his high and holy mission — i. e., to save the downtrodden by writing plays that fail and books that no publisher will accept.

With the best intentions in the world, I confess a complete inability to see anything more than empty words in all Mr. Comfort’s rhetorical hymning of Mystic Motherhood, Third Lustrous Dimensions and other such fantastic phantasms of the New Thought. I see nothing divine in women, and nothing diabolical. Men can get along without them — and in spite of them. The greatest of human achievements have been performed without their aid, and likewise the foulest of human swineries. Even as temptations, they are now of the second magnitude. Man has invented stronger appetites than the primal one for woman’s kisses. I mention only two: that for ethyl alcohol and that for fame. Gyneophobia is an archaic madness, and so is gyneolatry. . . . I get no stimulation out of this fantastic tale, with its leprous hero and its sonorous mysticism. Even the battle scenes, stirring in themselves, are overladen with platitudes and piffle.

(Source: Hathitrust.org, https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=njp.32101076380409&view=1up&seq=181)


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