The Raw Material of Fiction

H.L. Mencken

The Smart Set/March, 1914


WITHOUT running any very grave risk of being posted publicly as a liar, one may venture to say, I take it, that, just as melody is the raw material of music, so the thing we call the story is the raw material of prose fiction.

In the most elemental forms of fiction, as in the most elemental forms of music, we get that raw material and nothing more. Sometimes, indeed, it is inherently so nearly perfect, both in substance and in pattern, that nothing more is needed. Thus it was a sure artistic instinct which led Mark Twain to tell the famous story of the jumping frog exactly as he had heard it from Old Ben Coon, the half-wit of Angel’s Camp. The slightest attempt to augment and bedizen it, or, as the musicians say, to develop it, would have been ruinous to it. And thus it is that we are wholly satisfied, however richly nourished upon unresolved sevenths, by such homely songs as “Dixie,” “Stille Nacht” and “Annie Laurie.” They are as primitive as Aesop’s Fables or the first book of Genesis, but nevertheless it is unimaginable that any reinforcement of their naked simplicity could improve them, or even fail to spoil them. At least one of the three — “Annie Laurie,” to wit — is almost if not quite flawless as it stands, and hence it must be ranked with the greatest works of art that music can show.

But such perfection, of course, is quite as rare in art as it is in nature. The world has been producing songs innumerable for hundreds of years, and yet its “Annie Lauries” are still very few, and sometimes a quarter of a century goes by without any new one being added to the stock. So with its great stories. Of such infrequency, in fact, are accessions here that it is common to say that all of the really great ones have been told. But meanwhile the demand for both music and tales — or, as we now say, novels — keeps up as strongly as ever, and very tempting rewards, both in money and in fame, are offered to whoever can meet it. Two avenues of approach to these rewards lie open to the ambitious fictioneer. On the one hand, he may throw all intelligible standards of merit to the winds, and devote himself to manufacturing new stories that are frankly bad, trusting to the fact that nine persons out of ten are utterly devoid of esthetic sense and hence unable to tell the bad from the good. And on the other hand, he may take stories, or parts of stories that have been told before, or that, in themselves, are scarcely worth the telling, and so encrust them with the ornaments of wit, of shrewd observation, of human sympathy and of style — in brief, so develop them — that readers of good taste will forget the unsoundness of the material in admiration of the ingenious and workmanlike way in which it is handled. The authors of the first of these classes achieve the mawkish romances and in credible detective stories which leer at us from all the book counters. The authors of the second class achieve such things as “Tom Jones,” “Huckleberry Finn,” “Barry Lyndon,” “Germinal” and “The Brothers Karamazov.”

It is in music, however, rather than in fiction, that this triumph of skill over materials is best to be observed, and in music, again, that the occasional failures of the process are most striking. The opening movement of the greatest orchestral work ever written, Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, has nothing at the bottom of it save a little melody of two tones, one of them three times repeated — a melody so childishly simple that one has to stretch the meaning of the term to call it a melody at all. And yet, out of that austere material, Beethoven constructed a piece of music so noble and so beautiful, so rich in imagination and so lofty in style, that it remains today, after more than a century, a masterpiece that no other man has ever equalled, and that few have even so much as approached. But this same Beethoven, in the symphony immediately following, made a failure almost as noteworthy as his success in the incomparable Fifth. Here, in the so-called Pastorale, he started out with a melodic idea of decided grace and charm — in other words, with what seemed to be excellent material — but when he essayed to embellish and develop it, his usual resourcefulness failed him, and all he managed to do was to repeat it over and over again, with inconsiderable changes in tonality and instrumentation. The result was a composition which remains famous to this day, despite many beauties in its other movements, chiefly for its forbidding monotony. It is hard hearing, just as certain books by undoubtedly competent authors are hard reading.

All of which may well serve as overture to a few discreet remarks upon the subject of Joseph Conrad, an artist who falls far short, perhaps, of the Beethoven stature, but is still a fair match for — well, let us say Brahms. Like most other great novelists, Conrad belongs to the second of the two classes of story tellers that I mentioned a moment ago. That is to say, his actual story, thrilling though it may be, is always a great deal less important than the way he tells it. It is what he thinks about it and says about it, and in particular, the great laws of conduct and destiny that he sees within and behind it, that make it on the one hand a work of art and on the other hand a profound study of human motive, instinct and emotion. The uncanny fascination of “Typhoon,” for example, does not lie in the storm which batters the steam ship Nan-Shan, nor even in the melodramatic battle which goes on among the terrified Chinamen in her hold, but in the action and reaction of these external phenomena upon the muddled mind of Captain MacWhirr. The whole of that colossal tragi-comedy, indeed, is played out there. MacWhirr himself is not only the stage of the play, but also the entire stock company. And it is because Conrad is able to imagine clearly every move in so fantastic and rarefied a drama, and to make it comprehensible and poignant to the reader, that he earns the respect which belongs to a first-rate artist.

As I have said, the mere story, to such a novelist, is of secondary importance. The thing he demands of it is not that it be novel and enthralling in itself, but that it lend itself readily to artistic development, and be fruitful in situations which offer opportunity for elaborate psychological exploration. Just as Beethoven, in the Fifth Symphony, began a fragment of tune so primitive that it scarcely had any separate existence at all, so Conrad is in the habit of using the most commonplace materials of melodrama. At the bottom of “Falk” you will find nothing more than the old, old story of the shipwrecked sailors who fight for the last crust and then proceed to devour one another. And in “Heart of Darkness,” again in “An Outpost of Progress,” again in “Almayer’s Folly,” again in “An Outcast of the Islands,” and yet again in “Lord Jim” the fable is the simple one of the white man who sheds his civilization when thrown among savages. Here, in truth, Conrad has used the same story, or what is substantially the same story, no less than five times — and it appears as a sub-motive, as it were, in still other of his tales. So again, in “The Secret Agent,” “Under Western Eyes,” “Nostromo,” “Youth,” and “The Nigger of the Narcissus”: the primary material is conventional blood and thunder, and in other hands it would probably make us smile. But in Conrad’s hands it becomes the warp and woof of a fabric so complex and yet so delicate that the stuff out of which it is made is forgotten and we stand enchanted before the marvelously beautiful pattern. Such a story as “Youth,” told by an O. Henry, or even by a Kipling, would be nothing more than an exciting story. But told by Conrad it is at once a subtle philosophy of life and a stately poem, with something in it of the eternal wisdom of Ecclesiastes and something of the surge and thunder of the Odyssey.

Obviously, there are dangers attending the use of this method, for the moment the author begins to lose his grip on his story it becomes an empty and a tedious thing. How Beethoven slipped into platitude in the Pastorale we have seen; a hundred other musical examples might be drawn from the works of Schubert, Mendelssohn, Tschaikovsky and even Wagner, to say nothing of the Italians. And among the novelists there are many who suffer intermittently, and a few almost chronically, from attacks of the same depressing banality — for instance, Edith Wharton and Arnold Bennett among the former, and Eden Phillpotts and Gerhart Hauptmann among the latter. Even Conrad, like Meredith and Zola before him, has his off days, his times of clumsy floundering, his haltings upon intellectual dead centers. At such times a novelist is thrown, so to speak, upon his manner. That is to say, he has to go through the motions of saying something without actually having anything to say. The result is inevitably painful to the faithful reader. He gets a specious effect of profundity, a sonorous and deceptive soothing. He is ready, and even eager, to believe that he is being led down tortuous and enchanting paths. But the truth is, of course, that he is standing stock still, or rather, revolving like a teetotum, and after a while his head begins to swim and his knees to give way, and he presently falls into a fitful and unrefreshing slumber.

Something of this aching emptiness is to be met with in the latest of the Conrad novels, “Chance” by title (Doubleday-Page), or, at any rate, in its first hundred pages or so. Here we have the Conrad manner at its worst, and with no compensating richness of matter. The author hides a story within a story, and then turns aside from that second story to tell an irrelevant third story. Chapter after chapter is given to plotting the psychological charts of Mr. and Mrs. Fyne, brother-in-law and sister to the redoubtable Captain Roderick Anthony, despite the plain indication, from the very start, that the main business of the chronicle is to be with the Captain, and not with the Fynes. And in the same way we are introduced with the utmost elaborateness to one Captain Powell, whose only visible function, at least for a long while, is to impede and obscure the progress of events. In the end, true enough, it is seen that each of these persons has had a considerable influence upon the life of Anthony, but the point I wish to make is that the part they are to play is but dimly foreshadowed in the earlier portions of the story, and that in consequence their doings take on an air of irrelevance. In brief, Conrad proceeds to his development section before he has clearly given out his themes, and that habit makes for chaos in the novel quite as surely as in music.

The actual story, like that of “Lord Jim,” is plain melodrama. Captain Anthony, who is master and part-owner of a sailing ship, falls in love with Flora de Barral, the only daughter of a ruined financier. De Barral has been sent to prison and Flora is at the mercy of atrocious relatives. She is by no means in love with Anthony, but in order to escape these relatives she marries him and goes to sea with him. When her father is released from prison, he, too, is taken aboard the ship. Old De Barral, his mind a bit unbalanced by his downfall, takes a violent dislike to Anthony, and insists upon regarding him as the jailer of Flora. Finally he goes to the length of trying to poison Anthony. His intentions are discovered, and, panic- stricken, he swallows the poison himself. The cause of his death is concealed from Flora, and Anthony chivalrously offers to release her. But meanwhile she has fallen in love with him and is eager to become his wife in fact as well as in name. Thereafter they live happily, traveling up and down the world, until Anthony loses his life in a shipwreck.

Out of these simple materials, so familiar to all students of the “Seaside Library” of thirty years ago, Conrad has fashioned a characteristically complex and searching piece of fiction. Exasperatingly mystifying at the start, it gathers clarity as it goes on, and in the latter half is some of the best writing that he has done since “The Mirror of the Sea.” Is it only by coincidence that this increase of momentum comes with the departure of Anthony and Flora on their first voyage? I am inclined to see a greater significance in the fact. The story, true enough, is scarcely to be called a sea story. All that goes on aboard the ship Ferndale, or, at least, all that is essential to the tale, might have been made to occur with equal probability in a house ashore. But the first breath of ocean air seems to give Conrad, in some occult manner, a new grip upon his characters. After all, the fact is perhaps not strange. The sea is his element; the whole of his youth was spent upon it; its mark is upon all the ideas and impressions that make up his literary stock in trade. He has written superb land stories — setting aside “The Secret Agent” and “Under Western Eyes,” there is always “The Point of Honor” — but the things that lift him wholly above his contemporaries, and give him what would seem to be a secure place in the front rank of English novelists, are his incomparable tales of the sea — “Falk,” “Typhoon,” “The Nigger of the Narcissus,” “Lord Jim.” Here, indeed, are masterpieces for you. Here a true genius is spinning yarns.

But not, of course, simple yarns — not yarns as yarns are ordinarily understood. The fascination of a Conrad story lies, not in its merely narrative elements, but in its interpretative elements. “My task,” said Conrad once, “is, by the power of the written word, to make you hear, to make you feel — it is, before all, to make you see.” And what he makes us see is precisely what is least upon the surface — the subtle play of forces in the dim region of human motive and emotion, the inordinately tangled reactions between will and environment, the blind and irresistible play of the cosmic currents. He is a psychological polyphonist, an explorer of strange disharmonies, of startling progressions, of inexplicable overtones. All this, of course, explains the difficulty he presents to the idle novel reader, and even to the reader of more serious purpose. He is so intent upon the remoter effects and implications of his story that he sometimes allows the story itself to lose direction and clarity.

The same phenomenon is a familiar one in music: how often, indeed, do we see a composer involve himself in unintelligible snarls of sound in his free fantasia! The device employed to help out the baffled hearer might help out the baffled reader, too. Why not print a sort of thematic analysis before each of the Conrad novels, clearly marking off its main outlines? What an aid that would be to the comprehension and enjoyment of “Lord Jim”! As it is, the Conradian neophyte must read it twice to get at its true greatness — once to gather in the bare substance of the story, and once to search out the extraordinarily twisted and elusive paths of its inner content. The second reading is a joy, but the first must needs be somewhat arduous. Why not avoid the necessity for it by setting forth the author’s principal materials in advance, as Sir George Grove has set forth those of Beethoven and a host of commentators those of Wagner? I throw out the suggestion and no more. Perhaps it may help Conrad’s publishers to that popularization of him which they plan.

Now for a long plunge from the Matterhorn to the Piedmont plain, from Conrad and his eerie harmonics to the honest major chords of the best-sellers. I am not one to revile lightly the manufacturers of these so-fleeting fictions. It takes a high order of skill, though perhaps not a noble order, to do it acceptably. Many are called, but few are chosen. For every novice who tries to imitate Conrad, there are fifty who try to imitate Richard Harding Davis and hundreds who play the sedulous ape to Robert W. Chambers and Harold MacGrath. And yet, for all that competition, these tried masters hold the trade. Here is MacGrath with a new and good one — and here are E. Phillips Oppenheim, George Gibbs and all the rest of the semi-annuals at his heels. Twice a year they suffer the throes of composition and twice a year they rake in the shekels.

The spring Oppenheim, “A People’s ”Man” (Little-Brown), introduces us to a terrible Socialist named Maraton, who first stirs up the common people of the United States, and then crosses the Atlantic and stirs up the common people of England. On page eleven he meets the beautiful Lady Elisabeth Landon, niece to the Prime Minister, the Right Hon. Mr. Foley; on page 365 they are leaving the House of Commons together in a coupe and — “with a little cry her head sank upon his shoulder,” and “his arms closed around her.” Maraton, it appears, has lost most of his terrors in the interval; he and Mr. Foley, in fact, are now preparing to save the common people shoulder to shoulder. The MacGrath book, “Deuces Wild” (Bobbs- Merrill), is small but chock full — a sort of precis of all the best-sellers since “St. Elmo.” It has its rich and handsome artist, its burglar in dress clothes, its ruby that belonged to the Nana-Sahib, its beautiful young woman with red hair, and its radium-nosed detective. But if you think that it is dull, warmed-over stuff, then, my dears, you think wrong. This Mr. MacGrath is no blacksmith. He writes deftly, amusingly, bouncingly. He knows how to tell a bad story well. He is even able to poke a bit of sly fun at it in the telling. In “Madcap,” by George Gibbs (Appleton), there is another artist, but this time he is anything but handsome. Nevertheless, he is a fascinating fellow, and so young Hermia Challoner, rich and beautiful, makes a dead set for him. On page 342, after a long, earnest and, it must be said in fairness, entertaining chase, she catches one of his hands in hers and holds it close to her heart, and he gives her his solemn word that there was never anything to mention between himself and the Countess Olga Tcherny, and that the rice powder once visible upon his coat, though undoubtedly from the Countess’s face, was wholly without amorous significance. In “Molly Beamish,” by H. de Vere Stacpoole (Duffield), we have a workmanlike (and quite unblushing) variation upon the theme of Booth Tarkington’s “Beaucaire.” Imagine how those shrews and snobs of Bath sit up when the scorned Molly Beamish sweeps out of My Lady Dexter’s drawing room upon the arm of young Mr. Jerningham, a fugitive from justice no longer ago than this very morning, but now, of a dizzy sudden — Marquis of Blagdon! Suave, sweet stuff! More sweetness is in “The Jack-Knife Man,” by Ellis Parker Butler (Century Co.), wherein we meet a genial ne’er-do-well who adopts a little crippled orphan, and in the last chapter is married by the Widow Potter for his pains. And in “The Poison Belt,” by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (Doran), there are thrills. Our old friend, Prof. Challenger, of “The Lost World”— -the earth passing through a belt of poisonous gases — millions keeling over, apparently dead — Challenger saving himself and his friends with draughts of Oxygen — what a tale, indeed!

Of “The White Linen Nurse,” by Eleanor Hallowell Abbott (Century Co.), there has been much bitter whispering in the newspapers, chiefly against its strange combinations of adjective and noun. One critic, it appears, broke down and wept when he came to “romantic smell” and “giggling brook.” What he did when he struck “skittish young violets,” “plunging heart” and “sweaty soul ” we can only guess. But as for me, I must confess shamelessly that such novelties give me far more of genial tickling than of anguish. I can stand the unrelated triads in “Der Rosenkavalier,” and I can stand the gipsy phrases in “The White Linen Nurse.” As a matter of fact, they kept the book in my hand long after I had lost all interest in the actual story. That story is sentimental and improbable stuff. The senior surgeon of a great hospital, widowed and with a crippled child on his hands, proposes marriage to a hysterical trained nurse while the two of them are crawling out of a wrecked automobile. He scarcely knows the lady’s name (it is the forbidding one of Rae Malgregor), but as he says himself, his profession is one which trains a man to quick and fatal decisions. She consents almost at once and they are duly married — and he proceeds straight from the church door to the Canadian wilds, where he goes upon his annual drunk of thirty days, the only recreation of his busy life. On page 200 he returns from this honeymoon a cappella with his nerves in rags; on page 266 he and Rae discover that they love; on page 275 they depart upon a second honeymoon — together. Nothing here to bulge the eye; nothing worth hearing about; nothing even new. But this Miss Abbott has a style all her own, gay, unconventional, bizarre. In a day of undistinguished writing, it stands out sharply and pleasantly. For it I am glad to forgive her for many things, including a howling “whomever” on page 174.

Books of an agreeable mediocrity are plentiful this month. I glance through a dozen or more of them without finding anything worthy of either high praise or unqualified blame. In “Ruth Anne,” by Rose Cullen Bryant (Lippincott), there is another trained nurse — this time an opulent young woman who takes to the hypodermic and the clinical thermometer, not in the hope of snaring a doctor or a patient, but out of a desire to serve suffering humanity. Naturally enough, it gives her a shock to discover that this serving of humanity has been turned into an everyday trade by its practitioners, and that a good many of them are careless and even cynical workmen. One night a fever patient is allowed to commit suicide through lack of watchfulness and Ruth Anne leaves the hospital in disgust. But thereafter, it appears, her passion for the uplift undergoes a considerable cooling, for on page 319 we find her proposing marriage to one Dr. Hollander, whose “rugged figure” is “severe and stern in every outline,” but who is a very nice man for all that. A third priestess of service is to be found in “Mothering on Perilous,” by Lucy Furman (Macmillan). This one goes into the Kentucky mountains and there takes charge of a settlement school. She finds the business of civilizing the mountaineers a very difficult one, but she sticks to it gamely, and as we take leave of her she is still at it.

“Desert Gold,” by Zane Grey (Harper), and “Lahoma,” by John Breckenridge Ellis (Bobbs-Merrill), are both tales of the great wide West, and in each you will find Indians, bad men and lovers. “The Desired Woman,” by Will N. Harben (Harper), shows us how Dick Mostyn, a buccaneer in both finance and amour, is punished at last for his piracies, and how suffering awakens his better nature, and how, in the end, he becomes a very gentle and kindly man, with hair that is “gray, even to the whiteness of snow.” “Robin Hood’s Barn,” by Alice Brown (Macmillan), is chiefly notable for its truly awful illustrations. Taking one year with another, these eyes probably rest upon 2,500 novel illustrations per annum — 2,500 pictures of heroes seven feet in height making love to super-Billie Burkes and beyond-Maxine Elliotts. I am thus not unduly sensitive to bad drawing: long use has made me view it tolerantly. But for all that comfortable toughness, I still jump an inch or two when I alight upon anything as bad as the picture facing page 190 in Miss Brown’s book. And the one facing page 220 is even worse! It is next to impossible, with such ghastly caricatures of them before one’s eyes, to take a civilized interest in the love affair of Alaric Stayson, the brilliant young biographer, and Miss Adelaide Wickham, daughter to the late Gilead Wickham, the notorious money baron.









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