A 1911 Model Dream Book

H.L. Mencken

The Smart Set/September, 1911

THE New Thought, taking it by and large, is probably the most prosperous lunacy ever invented by mortal man. Every one of its multitudinous sub-lunacies, from psychical research to anti-vaccination, from vegetarianism to the Emmanuel Movement, and from zoophilism to Neo-Buddhism, is gaining converts daily and making excellent profits for a horde of male, female and neuter missionaries. Why work at gravel roofing or dishwashing in the heat of the day when you can open a table tapping studio in any convenient furnished room house and rake in the willing dollars of the feeble-minded, the while you make their eyes bulge and the xanthous freckles on their necks go lemon pale? As a communicative New Thinker of my acquaintance once said, Mind is a darn powerful thing. What causes chilblains to afflict the slaves of error, banjos to tinkle in dark cabinets, veiled (and fat) she-wizards to read the number of your watch, dogs to die of non-existent rabies, dreams to come true? Mind! Matter is a mere symbol of Mind—a sort of effigy, shadow or greenback. And of the two halves of Mind (for, like all other things, it has two halves) the most potent and protean is the Subconscious. It is the Subconscious that awakens you in the middle of the night to deliver a telegram from the coroner at Zanesville, O., saying that your mother in-law, dear old girl, has just died of lockjaw. It is the Subconscious, again, that cures you when pink pills, camomile and five doctors have failed. It is the Subconscious, yet again, that plucks the banjo in the cabinet and lifts the table from the floor and strokes you with damp, uncanny hands—while the medium’s de facto husband, out in the ante room, is searching your overcoat for cigars.

Such is Mind. Such is the Subconscious. Such are their tricks and their gains. And yet, for all their potency and for all their prophets and profits, they, too, have enemies. Lamentable—but yet a fact! There are actually scoundrels who maintain that Eusapia Palladino, with the lights up and her feet nailed to the floor, could not lift a table, nor even a footstool—that a Christian Scientist, held under water for twenty minutes, would infallibly drown—that when Katie King looked at Sir William Crookes she could scarcely throttle her guffaws—that psychotherapy is by Emerson’s Essays out of Peruna—that poor old Lombroso was an ass—that the influence of Mind upon the liver is to the influence of Liver upon the mind as a wart is to Ossa.

And now comes a new heretic—Dr. Havelock Ellis, to wit—with the scandalous allegation that the true meaning of a dream about a murder is not that the dreamer is soon to be married, or that his brother Fred, in Texas, has been trampled to death by hippopotami, or that the Athletics will win the pennant, but that deep down in the dreamer’s innards, somewhere south of his Tropic of Cancer, the cartilage of last night’s lobster are making a powerful resistance to digestion. In brief, Dr. Ellis presumes to maintain, in “THE WORLD OF DREAMS, ” his new book (Houghton Mifflin), that dreaming is a physical business, almost as much so as snoring, and that the small part played in it by Mind is usually that of a low comedian.

Did you ever dream that you were walking in air—that you were going upstairs at a gallop, but with your feet just missing the stair treads? Early in life, before I took to hard labor and ceased to dream, I used to dream that dream very often. Other folk tell me that they know it, too; Dr. Ellis says that it is very common in the young. Well, what causes it? The theosophists say that it is not a dream at all, but a real experience—that the astral body takes wing in the night and goes upon wild jaunts among the stars. The psychical re searchers hold it to be either reminiscent or prophetic—a memory of something forgotten or a prevision of something to come. No doubt the Baptists, the Swedenborgians, the Emmanuel Movers and the crystal gazers have other explanations—all more or less abstruse and all absurd. As for Dr. Ellis, he has a theory, too, but it is not abstruse a bit, and neither is it absurd.

Such dreams of flying, he says, are probably caused at bottom by respiratory and cardiac disturbances, the effect of sleeping in a constrained position. To the dulled brain goes a vague message that the lungs and heart are laboring, and at once an effort is made to account for the fact. What, in everyday experience, gives those organs their hardest strains? Why, the act of running up stairs, of course. It is the most violent exercise ever undertaken by the ordinary human being—and the young, to be sure, indulge in it more than the ancient and paunchy. So the brain, but one tenth awake and one-twentieth intelligent, decides that a journey upstairs is underway. But how explain the element of aviation—the impression that the feet are not touching the stair treads? Easily enough. When the body is going to sleep it is the peripheral nerves—that is to say, the nerves just beneath the skin—that go to sleep first. Some time before the brain itself is quite inert, the skin has lost all sensation. By now, perhaps, you see what happens. The brain formulates a muddled idea of going up stairs, but no appropriate sensory impressions come from the feet. Therefore the idea that the feet are not touching the stairs is superimposed upon the first idea, and the result is that vague dream of walking in air which most of us know.

I have here lifted but one page from Dr. Ellis’s book, and that one by no means the most interesting. He has put together what must stand for a long time as the shrewdest and most comprehensive treatise upon dreams in the English language. As those readers who have read his “Man and Woman” and his “Studies in the Psychology of Sex” are aware, he is a psychologist who adds to a native ingeniousness a thorough acquaintance with the latter-day psychological literature of Germany, France and Italy. In the present book he rehearses the experiments and observations of every recent investigator of importance and weighs their ideas with judicial fairness. His own conclusions are put forth, of course, not as definite theories, but merely as hypotheses—but even when they fail to account for all of the known facts, they never go counter to any of those facts. If you are at all interested in the mechanism of existence you will find his volume enormously entertaining. He is a diligent and sapient inquirer, a brave enemy of pseudo-scientific flapdoodle, a writer of sense and charm.

Another scientific fellow with something worth hearing to say is Dr. Leon C. Prince, who riddles the sophistry of the Eddyites in “THE SENSE AND NONSENSE OF CHRISTIAN SCIENCE” (Badger). Dr. Prince, let it be clearly understood, is no mere heaver of half-bricks. On the contrary, he has a kindly feeling for the Christian Scientists and is ready to admit that, judged empirically, their magic is genuine enough. That is to say, he grants them some of their alleged cures—not all, by any means, but still an appreciable some. Going further, he agrees with the Christian Scientists in their philosophical idealism, in their belief that the universe was created and is maintained by intelligence, and that all material things are mere condensations, as it were, of that intelligence. But to hold to that belief, he points out, by no means involves denying the practical reality of experience. A streptococcus and the first reader of the Mother Church may be equally ideal and apparitional, and yet their mutual reaction is real enough—to them. Let the streptococcus invade the first reader and the latter will inevitably fall ill, and though it may ease his mind to deny that the streptococcus is there, and even help him to get well, the streptococcus will be there all the same.

The Christian Scientists, however, deny that it is there; and in support of their denial they argue that the apparent existence of all such carnivora is a mere illusion of mortal mind. But what is mortal mind? Nothing—or, as Mrs. Eddy once said, “nothing claiming to be something.” But how can nothing produce an effect which is undoubtedly something—the effect, to wit, of being ill—the sensation of pain? The Chris tian Scientists reply that it can’t: that this sensation is a pure illusion, that no pain is actually experienced. And here, of course, they go counter, not only to the overwhelming and indubitable experience of the human race, but also to the plain rules of common sense, for they speak of a thing as having illusions and in the next breath they declare that it does not exist. To have any experience whatever, whether real or illusory, a thing must obviously exist. Dead men, as someone has said, tell no tales, and neither do they see ghosts or suffer from imaginary pains. To be fooled a thing must first be. The imaginary cannot imagine. And so it follows that, if mortal mind experiences illusions, then mortal mind cannot be an illusion itself.

But halt—let us have done with such philosophical grappling! The Christian Scientists, I am well aware, have an answer to the objections I have here tried to put forward, and I, in turn, have an answer to their answer. Going further, they have an answer to my answer to their answer, and I have an answer to their answer to my answer to their answer. The debate stretches out infinitely; I prudently retire at the end of the first round, with my wind still in me, my eyes unblacked and all of my teeth in my gums. The discussion in Dr. Prince’s excellent little book is far more interesting and valuable than I could hope to make it, for Dr. Prince is a better philosopher than I am, and besides, he is a fairer man. Fairness, indeed, is the hallmark of his work. The Christian Scientists will go far before they find a critic so liberal and generous, and at the same time so logical and shrewd. When you tire of novels, get his book. It is short enough to be read at one sitting, and good enough to be reread at some other sitting.

Two other serious volumes await, the first being “LOVE AND MARRIAGE,” by Ellen Key (Putnam) and the other “THE SUFFRAGETTE,” by E. Sylvia Pankhurst (Sturgis-Wallon). Miss Key’s book, which has been translated out of the original Swedish by Arthur G. Chater, is a plea for a reconstruction of the marriage relation—for its reconstruction upon a rational basis. There is here no space to consider the argument in detail, and any attempt to sketch it hastily would do it injustice. Let it suffice to praise Miss Key for an honest and in the main successful attempt to throw the light of reason into a subject long obscured by sentimentalists, special pleaders and muddle-headed theologians. Miss Pankhurst’s tome is a history of militant suffragetting, which means a history of Miss Pankhurst herself, and of her mama, and of her two sisters, Adela and Christabel, for if the Pankhurst family be taken away not much of the movement remains. I sat down to the chronicle much prejudiced against the suffragettes; I arose from it with that prejudice considerably diluted by understanding. A lot of curious pictures accompany the text.

According to “Who’s Who in America,” “Dewing, Elizabeth Bartol, author,” was “b. New York, Nov. 27, 1885,” which is very good news indeed, for the fictioneer who achieves at twenty five a novel so full of promise and distinction as “A BIG HORSE TO RIDE” (Macmillan) may be very reasonably expected by forty or fifty to bring a genuine and lasting contribution to the art of prose fiction. The one danger confronting Miss Dewing is that of swallowing over praise—of concluding that she has mastered the trick. For over praise is sure to come to her, if only because the critics, ground down by their daily round of damning, hail the rare holiday with yells and swill its wine of change a bit recklessly. Inelegant and mixed figures—but you catch the idea. As for this book, it sticks out from the desert of machine-made American fiction like a tall oak from the plain. It has coherence, design, clarity, color, individuality, a point of view, an air—all the qualities which distinguish a work of art from a work bearing the union label. Instead of merely telling a tale, it essays to explain, account for, analyze that tale. Its appeal is not to those who demand only that things happen incessantly, but to those who search for light as to why things happen. Specifically it is a character study of a great dancer—an attempt to penetrate that baffling attitude of mind, or spiritual essence, or form of insanity, or whatever you choose to call it, upon which some forgotten ass bestowed the name of artistic temperament. Rose Carson conquers Christendom with her dancing, but at the game of love she fails. Just how and why she fails Miss Dewing tries to show us, and succeeds—almost. A novel which misses by a hairsbreadth. A book which gives a plain promise of better things to come.

Another suave piece of writing is “HALF-LOAVES,” by Helen Mackay (Duffield), a first novel by a writer whose short sketches in the French manner I noticed a year or so ago. The story itself is of simple design. Florida Marvin, outraged by her husband’s light hearted polygamies, flees from him and England and seeks forgetfulness in the Italian village of her childhood. But what she actually finds there is not forgetfulness, but a sort of brave charity. Life, she discovers, is a pretty bitter business all ’round. There are worse things in the world—far, far worse—than living with Jack Marvin, just as there are far worse men than Jack himself. And the secret of living is not to struggle, to cry out and to plot operatic revenges, but to serve and suffer with eyes to the front. So back she goes to Jack—who is to her, one may say, what the cattle boats were to Mulholland. A sad story, with a faint reminiscence of “Dodo” in it, but one that also shows a true artistic feeling and a considerable fluency of expression.

Such novels of distinction are rare among us, but the supply of honest trade goods never falters. Here, for example, comes the diligent Arthur Hornblow with still another novelization, this time of Charles Klein’s banal melodrama, “THE GAMBLERS” (Dillingham). The artistic quality of a Hornblow novelization is midway between that of the original Klein play and that of a vaudeville song, and yet there seems to be a steady and a profitable market for all three things. By the same token there is also a steady market for what may be called the standard novel of commerce—that novel which contains the maximum of startling incident and the minimum of intelligible idea. For example, “THE PRICE,” by Gertie de S. Wentworth James (Kennerley), an utterly preposterous tale about an airman who is pursued to his death by an amorous married woman. It would be difficult to imagine more dreary drivel than that Mrs. Wentworth-James has here manufactured, and yet the book will probably sell ten times as well as “Lord Jim.” Another “THE PRICE,” this one by Francis Lynde (Scribner), shows vastly better workmanship, but here, too, highly improbable incident takes the place of observation and most of the characters are mechanical toys. “THE STOLEN SINGER,” by Martha Bellinger (Bobbs-Merrill), seems to be another of the same sort, but to that I cannot swear, for I have found it impossible to read more than a few odd chapters. “THE FIRST LAW,” by Gilson Willets (Dillingham), and “THE MAN WITHOUT A FACE,” by Albert Boissiere (Dillingham) are even worse—cheap thrillers which differ from dime novels chiefly in price. And so follow trade goods of other brands—“THE SPIRIT OF THE ISLAND,” by Joseph Hornor Coates (Little-Brown), a mawkish tale of love; “ANNA MALLEEN, ” by George H. Brennan (Kennerley), a story of the stage, with weak attempts at humor; “THE DAWN MEADOW,” by G. A. Dennen (Badger), a new variation of the standard cast-away-on-a-desert-island romance; and “DAWN OF THE MORNING,” by Grace Livingston Hill Lutz (Lippincott), in which the orthodox difficulties and heartaches are eased by the orthodox hug on the last page. Such stuff does no harm, perhaps, but what pleasure can any intelligent human being get out of reading it?

In “AN OLD MAID’S VENGEANCE,” by Frances Powell (Scribner), we see how the opulent Winifred Cryden, a virgin at fifty-six and regretting the fact exceedingly, falls in love with Monsieur Ulaszlo de Noiraud of the Hungarian noblesse; how he thirsts for her negotiable securities but cannot bring himself, as it were, to swallow her face; how she sends for her beautiful cousin, young Elinor Ladoon, and sets her upon poor Ulaszlo, with the aim of tearing his heart to tatters; how this foul scheme of revenge works so admirably that Ulaszlo runs amuck and commits a murder—and many other unpleasant and preposterous things. A queer composition, certainly! In “MEMBERS OF THE FAMILY, ” by Owen Wister (Macmillan), we breathe cleaner air, for once more we are in Wyoming and once more the fantastic Scipio Le Moyne is at his tricks. There are eight tales in the book, and they represent Mr. Wister’s agreeable scrivening during ten years. To the collection he hangs a somewhat labored preface, in which he mourns the passing of the Wyoming of the day before yesterday. Today the denizens of that once romantic state have telephones in their houses and wear detachable cuffs. Eheu fugaces, Postume, Postume, labuntur anni! More tales of the West are in “YELLOWSTONE NIGHTS,” by Herbert Quick (Bobbs-Merrill), not to mention certain tales of the East and South, and descriptions of the Yellowstone scenery hold them together. Some of them drag a bit, but others are extremely well done. “ORPHANS,” by Helen Dawes Brown (Houghton-Mifflin), admits us to the pitiful tragedy of two youngsters whose parents are divorced. Henry James, alas, has got us into the bad habit of thinking of it as a comedy.

More novels! “THE GARDEN OF THE SUN,” by Capt. T. J. Powers, U.S.A. (Small-Maynard), is a tale of love, daring and scandal in the Philippines. It doesn’t take Capt. Phil. Ballard of the cavalry more than a few minutes to win the heart of Barbara Bennett, but the business of winning her hand is far more deliberate and fatiguing; for in the first place Phil is also beloved by other women and one of them makes a savage effort to ensnare him, and in the second place Barbara has a husband on her hands, and that husband is a long while drinking himself to death. As a matter of fact, he has to help out the Rum Demon in the end by opening an artery with a penknife. Then Phil and Barbara meet in a grapple which makes them tremble “like blossoms shaken by a honey-mad bee.” It seemed to Barbara “that the stars swayed in their circuits and tumbled in their accustomed places. . . . She lay pulsating on the breast of her lover, clinging to him for support in the vertiginous whirl.” Just as exciting, but far less absurd is “IN HER OWN RIGHT,” by John Reed Scott (Lippincott), in which we see how Geoffrey Croyden, a very excellent young man, is ruined by the failure of Royster & Axtell; how his ruin makes him hesitate to sue for the hand of the rich Elaine Cavendish, whom he loves; how he decides to bury himself on a little property he owns on the Eastern Shore of Mary land; and how, prowling about that property, he happens upon two or three barrels of pirate gold, and so is made opulent again and takes Elaine into his arms, making her happy, himself happy and the romantic reader happy. A brisk and cleanly tale, but not one that you will remember for more than twenty minutes.

“THE CROSS OF HONOUR,” by Mary Openshaw (Small-Maynard), is a story of Napoleon’s first Russian campaign, with the little Emperor himself in the lover’s role. Such quasi-historical fictions, of course, have been long out of fashion, but this one has merit enough to make it worth reading. A certain plausibility lingers about the Napoleon that the author draws; he may not be the genuine Napoleon of Austerlitz and Borodino, but all the same he is far from a stuffed dummy. “GEORGE THORNE, ” by Norval Richardson (Page), is a somewhat ambitious study of remorse. Young Thorne, at twenty-four, succeeds in convincing old Winston Livingstone that he is the latter’s long lost son, kidnapped in childhood—and thereafter he makes acquaintance with the surprising fact that stolen sweets may be very bitter. Finally his outraged conscience drives him to confession—but if you want to know the rest you must read the book. Mr. Richardson’s incidents, being often improbable, handicap him sorely in his writing, but there is still a considerable promise in his work and no doubt he has greater achievement ahead of him.

To the excellent MODERN AUTHORS’ SERIES of foreign short stories (Brown) three new volumes have just been added. One of them is “A Red Flower,” a fantastic picture of insanity by Vsevolod Garshin, one of the younger Russians of the day; the other two are by Frank Wedekind, the German author of “The Awakening of Spring, ” which I reviewed some time ago. Wedekind’s peculiarly grotesque imagination is well exhibited in “The Grisley Suitor,” a tale obviously designed to shock the Philistines to death. The same note “appears in “Rabbi Ezra,” which gives its title to the second Wedekind volume, but in “The Victim,” which accompanies it, there is greater seriousness. It is to be hoped that this series will eventually include some of the delightful stories and sketches of Otto Julius Bierbaum, an ornament, like Wedekind, of the Uberbrettl’ movement in Germany, but a man of far more humor and human kindness. The “Yankeedoodle-Fahrt’’ should be done into English by all means, not to mention some of the delightful medieval tales in the manner of Anatole France. There is, too, Bierbaum’s poetry, some of which has been already translated by Percival Pollard. Certainly American readers should be better acquainted with so merry and melodious a fellow.

A paragraph for the poets, and particularly for Damon Runyon, whose slim volume, “THE TENTS OF TROUBLE” (FitzGerald), is filled with imitations of Kipling so full of spirit that Kipling himself might be glad to own some of them. Do you remember Robert W. Chambers’s “The Recruit”? Well, here are a score or more of such Rudyardian fancies, not to mention a number of pretty pieces in more sentimental moods. From bellows to whispers! The verses of Anne Cleveland Cheney, in “BY THE SEA” (Sherman-French), are of the Atlantic Monthly school—correct and ladylike compositions with no more real emotion in them than so many cadenzas. In “THROUGH DUST TO LIGHT,” by Robert Valentine Heckscher (Sherman-French) and the “DEVOTIONAL POEMS” of Eugene B. Read (Sherman-French) hollow platitudes take the place of ideas.

And now to make an end. “ABROAD WITH THE FLETCHERS,” by James Felton Sampson (Page), is the extremely labored and tedious story of a common place gallop through Europe. “THE CAREER OF THE CHILD,” by Maximilian P. E. Grosamann (Badger), is an elaborate treatise upon educational psychology and methods. “THE VERY LITTLE PERSON,” by Mary Heaton Vorse (Haughton-Mifflin), is a new version of the ever amusing comedy of Young Papa, Young Mamma and Little Bright Eyes, with capital pictures by Rose O’Neill. “THE PATIENT OBSERVER,” by Simeon Strunsky (Dodd-Mead), is a collection of half-serious, half-extravagant essays upon all things under the sun, from the discomforts of a pauneh to the horrors of dining with a bride and groom. “THE GIRL WHO DISAPPEARS,” by Gen. Theodore A. Bingham (Badger), is a tract in favor of the segregation of vice—a tract which must needs offend all professional moralists by the fact that it is full of good sense. “THE WEST IN THE EAST,” by Price Collier (Scribner), is the record of an American’s observations in India, Mr. Collier sees little to fear in Japan’s progress or in the native unrest in India, but he counsels us to keep a weather eye on John Chinaman.

(Source: Hathitrust.org, https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=umn.31951002800661x;view=1up;seq=170)

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