A Dip Into the Novels

H.L. Mencken

The Smart Set/July, 1912

THE good folk of the Middle Ages, tiring anon of pouring out their obeisance and their cash at the feet of their lords spiritual, had a habit of declaring an occasional hiatus or interregnum, during which the truly prudent bishop retired to some convenient catacomb or other secure place of retreat, while the town scaramouche discharged witticisms from the episcopal throne, and a red flag floated from the cathedral spire, and the baptismal font was filled with malt liquor, and all the bad boys played at “I-spy” and Crusader-and-Saracen in the nave. Such was the so-called Festa Asinoria, the feast of asses (or, in later times, of fools), of which you will find much indignant discourse in the ancient tomes.

It came, as a rule, once a twelvemonth, usually just before Christmas, but in some dioceses it was a vagrant and movable feast, to be proclaimed and celebrated whenever the burden of reverence began to put unbearable strains upon the popular spine. Whether the ass from which the festival took its name played the role of bishop or merely that of bishop’s steed—this the antiquaries fail to tell us. Sometimes perhaps the one, and sometimes the other. But at all events the long-eared animal was always the center of the merry making, and the rest of the merrymakers took their cue from his character. Light and cheerful doings, indeed, and full of the innocent sacrileges of those days of faith. To charge the censer with old boot heels and cows’ hair, to wallop the mock bishop with slapsticks and bladders, to put geese in the chancel and dunce caps on the sacred images, to imitate the rough sports of Gargantua in the cathedral of Notre Dame and of Pantagruel on the day of Corpus Christi—all this was part of the fun. And then, the Festa Asinoria being over and the common people purged of their profane bile, back they went to orderly worship, and the bishops, emerging from the bowels of the earth, once more took their lawful toll of genuflections and currency.

Well, well, a pretty tale, to be sure, but what is the moral of it? The moral—already visible to the astute—is simply this: that, far from being corrupting, it may be actually healthful now and then to ride a jackass into church. And why? Because a too steady piety, like a too steady sobriety, is dangerous to body and soul. Absolute virtue, turning upon itself, may easily become the worst of vices. A man may die of thirst even more quickly than he may die of drink. Those medieval burghers, with the rude wisdom of lowly folk, knew the fact and profited by their knowledge of it. They were always much the better, I believe, for their heathenish flings. Thus discharging, at one devastating salvo, a whole year’s accumulations of profanity and indecency, of contumacy and rebellion, they were left clean of all such moral ptomaines. Not a snicker lingered; not a doubt remained in their craws. And so completely restored by their own Dionysian act to a pristine docility and state of grace, they were willing and even eager to meet the exactions of their ecclesiastical superiors, and until another fit came on them their loudest bellow in the sanctuary was as the faint harmonic whisper of an undertaker.

All of us are helped by such treasons to the things we believe in, by such premeditated debauches of blacksliding and ribaldry. If a seidel of Pilsener is worth twenty cents to you or me, it must be worth twenty dollars to the average rabble rouser of the Anti-Saloon League; for whatever his moral horror of the great Bohemian brew, he has veins and arteries like our own, and those veins and arteries shriek piteously now and again for something with more body to it and more steam in it than well water. And if a single hearty “damn,” bursting from his surcharged system, can reduce the temperature of a steamboat mate by one hundred thousandth of a degree Fahrenheit, then the same “damn,” loosed by an archbishop, may conceivably save him from apoplexy. So speaks logic—and speaking so, it gives me excuse for advising you to read “Zuleika Dobson,” by Max Beerbohm (Lane), a burlesque novel. We of this club are in the habit of taking novels very seriously. We burrow, month by month, with perfectly straight faces, into their abysmal problems of psychology and physiology, of politics and sex; we engage in laborious and scientific dissections of their technique; we examine each new one in the light of the classics of its own purport and quality; we constantly assume, as a first principle, that the novel is an art form as dignified as the epic or the symphony, and that it is worthwhile to give time and thought to it; we insist that, whatever its play of humor, it deal earnestly with the human beings it presumes to depict; even when we ourselves indulge in titters and cat calls, it is only because we hope thus to punish trifling by the novelist himself. Therefore let us put away for a hygienic moment or two all such fine assumptions and sobrieties, and take a heretical vacation. In brief, let us guffaw a bit with Max, for this burlesque novel of his is a burlesque upon the whole art of novel writing, upon the whole science of hypothetical psychology—and what is more, it is genuinely and uproariously funny.

Naturally enough, “Zuleika Dobson” is a love story, for the novel, to nine-tenths of us, is unimaginable save as a love story, and naturally enough, the heroine is a being of stupendous beauty and of even more stupendous charm. By profession a stage magician, she is yet a lady—for isn’t her grandfather warden of Judas College, Oxford? —and being a lady, she is a hundred times as seductive as if she were an ordinary houri of the boards. Before her greatest romance begins she has slain her thousands on two continents. In Paris, whither she went for a month’s engagement, she struck the whole town dumb. “The jewelers of the Rue de la Paix soon had nothing left to put in their windows—everything had been bought for ‘La Zuleika.’ For a whole month baccarat was not played at the Jockey Club—every member had succumbed to a nobler passion. For a whole month the whole demi-monde was forgotten for one English virgin.” And after that first triumph capital after capital groveled at her feet. In Berlin the students escorted her home every night with torches, and Prince Vierfunfsechs-Siebenachtneun wooed her so wildly that the Kaiser had to lock him up. In St. Petersburg the Grand Duke Salamander-Salamandrovitch deluged her with precious stones and nearly died of love of her. In Madrid the most famous living matador committed suicide in the plaza de toros because she would not smile upon him. In Rome the Pope launched a bull against her—and in vain. In Constantinople the Sultan offered her Divan a-Center in his seraglio. In New York she held the front pages of the newspapers for weeks and weeks and all the millionaires of Pittsburgh combined to entertain her.

And yet when Zuleika goes to Oxford to pay a filial visit to her venerable grandpa, her own heart is still whole. Sick unto death of homage, the thing she craves is scorn. Her dream is of a hero, young, handsome and rich, who will look into her violet eyes—and then turn away with a sneer. She is in search of the lordly, magnificent, tyrannical male, of the ubermensch who will conquer and subdue her, of the master foreordained. Is he at Oxford? Is he among those pink youths who already, before she has been in the town half an hour, begin dashing off sonnets to her eyebrows and hexameters on her nose? Alas, it scarcely seems probable! But halt—what of this splendid fellow who comes galloping down the street, this Adonis upon a polo pony, with his riband of blue and white—what, in brief, of the young Duke of Dorset? A misogynist, indeed, to match Zuleika, the misanthrope ! He, too, sickens of admiration, particularly of that admiration which spans the gulf of sex. A nobleman, a millionaire and a celebrity at three and twenty, his dream is of a woman who will not bore him with her love. He has tasted nearly all of the sweets of life. He has seen the world; he has taken Oxford’s prizes; he has made a name for himself in the House of Lords; he has won the Garter; he has known passion and conquest. All he asks now is peace—and the brand of peace he pictures to himself is that which has its roots in celibacy, in existence a capella.

Therefore when he and Zuleika face each other across the dinner table of the innocent old warden of Judas on the evening of her arrival, the ensuing duel of sex is necessarily of unexampled fury and ferocity. Will Zuleika, by falling in love with the Duke, send him flying in dismay, or will the Duke, by falling in love with Zuleika, disgust her and freeze her? The gross evidence, the outward and visible play of events, seems to point to the former consummation. That is to say, the Duke, after a terrific exchange of malicious animal magnetism, suddenly dashes from the table and the house, leaving a half-peeled orange on his plate. Has Zuleika fallen in love with him and so scared him out of his boots? For the moment, yes. But when early next morning she pursues him to his rooms, bent upon worshiping him for his heartlessness, she makes the staggering discovery that his flight was really inspired not so much by fear of her love as by horror at his own. In brief, the Duke has fallen in love with Zuleika as she has fallen in love with him—and that very fact of course makes it impossible for her to love him further. Her quest is for a man who can resist her, for a man unshaken by her charms, for a man arctic enough to flout her and laugh “Ha, ha!” at her devotion. The more the Duke pleads his suit the less she loves him. In the end she tells him calmly that she can never, never be his.

Ah, fatal girl! Little do you reck the depth and virulence of that ducal passion! Is Dorset to be put off like a common admirer? To be sure he is not. Self-respect, duty to his noble order, the honor of his ancient race—all demand some overt act of protest, some awe inspiring and memorable signal of rebellion. What suggests itself? Suicide, of course—the last, sublime act of many a greater man. The Duke decides to drown himself—to drown himself in the river Isis on the day of the Magdalen Judas boat race, and in the full robes and regalia of the Most Noble Order of the Garter. And to that desperate act, after one or two false starts, he actually proceeds. Just as the boats heave into view flying down the river, he wraps the mantle of his high dignity about him, cries “ Zuleika!” in a loud voice, and plunges from the upper deck of the Judas houseboat. And what is more, every other undergraduate in Oxford plunges with him! All love Zuleika, and all wither in her scorn. The Duke, their leader, has shown the way. By squads and companies, by battalions and regiments, they follow him. The river is full of drowning youths. The very crews jump from the boats. And not a soul is saved!

So much for the machinery of the tale. It is in its detail of course that Max particularly shines—in the little side lights upon Oxford legends and prejudices, in the little flings at Oxford snobs and magnificoes. You will miss, I dare say, some of the best of its whimsicalities, as I have doubtless done, for only an Oxford man may be expected to understand them all; but even so the book will delight you from cover to cover. The style of Max was never more fantastically graceful; the vocabulary of Max was never more sonorous and amazing. I rescue “dulcify,” “daedal,” “ineluctable,” “peripety,” “orgulous,” “splendent,” “meiosis,” “aseity,” “otiose,” “commorient” and “ataraxy”—a hundred others float down the stream. And nothing could be more hilarious than some of the colloquies; for example, that between Zuleika and the Duke, when he tries to stagger her with his splendors, and that between the Duke and his undergraduate followers, when he tries to dissuade them from their last grim following, and that between Zuleika and her ancient grand dad, after the Isis has swallowed the whole youth and chivalry of Oxford. Here indeed Mr. Beerbohm has made a first rate contribution to a department of humor which shows remarkably few good examples in English, for though comic novels are common among us, burlesque novels are very rare. Setting aside Mark Twain’s medieval romance and the parodies of Thackeray and Bret Harte—and a parody of a definite novel or of a definite novelist’s manner isms is not quite the same thing as a burlesque of the Novel—what, in truth, have we to show?

From conscious burlesque to unconscious burlesque. That is to say, to “Ars Amoris,” by Marian Cox, which fills some two hundred pages, or about seventy per cent of the volume called “Spiritual Curiosities” (Kennerley). Here we observe the Babylonish luxuriousness of Mrs. Sabille Orman, the young and petted wife of an osseocapital Wall Street man. The world is Mrs. Orman’s oyster. Thousands slave and sweat their lives away that she may swathe her person in silks and laces, and loll upon cushions stuffed with nightingale’s down, and live in rooms carpeted with priceless Persian rugs, and adorn her hair with jewels fit for a rajah’s crown, and nourish her body with victuals of ethereal and transcendental delicacy. One feels that a muddy footprint upon the floor would send her to bed for a week; that the sight of a single cockroach would strike her blind. And yet even so exquisite, so ineffable a being has dirty work to do—if not dirty work of the hands, then at least dirty work of the soul. Her husband, the numbskull aforesaid, gets into difficulties. Certain politicians—cheap demagogues, pediculine vulgarians—interfere with his ravishment of the common people. In particular, one politician, a certain Lawrence Ilford. Ilford, it appears, is above ordinary bribery; the regular agents of Mr. Orman cannot reach him But what money cannot do, love may accomplish—and Mrs. Orman decides to try. In ten days Ilford is ready to eat out of her hand. Going further, he actually eats. That is to say, he betrays his constituents and saves Orman. And then Mrs. Orman gives him the laugh. Cruel woman—and ah, so fool hardy! Little does she know, at the start, what a desperate man she is dealing with! But she does know, suddenly and painfully, when he kidnaps her in a taxicab and takes her to a flat in Harlem and locks her up in a room with a ton of radium and so dooms her to a slow and intolerable death, apparently of eczema! No wonder she bawls: “Oh, Lawrence, Lawrence—I love you, I love you! Take me! I am yours! Do with me as you will! You are my lord, my master, my god!”

What the deuce is it all about? My answer must be that of Mr. Taft to the Cooper Union Socialist: God knows! The canned review says that it is a study “in the subtleties of mood and emotion that characterize men and women of varying types.” Again: “Sabille Orman may be considered too astonishing to be real, but she exists and is well known, though not well understood, in New York society. The book is full of epigrams and sheer cleverness, but it has also a strong psychological element.” Rubbish! The epigrams, so far as I have been able to separate them from the burbling stream of verbiage, are merely platitudes translated into bad English. For example: “From what could humanity learn justice since the Creator Himself has inflicted the great injustice—of all the sex pains and travail exclusively upon women?” Another: “One must laugh at his mistakes else they kill him.” Yet another: “Morality is created either by the moral, whose pathologic condition, resulting from restraint, renders them incapable of a clear uncongested view of the matter, or by the immoral, who desire to safeguard their own and all immorality by doctrinating it for the world as the forbidden and severely penalized.” Barring this knock-kneed English, the volume is not unamusing, but its chief value is as an object lesson in the grotesque mendacity of canned reviews.

Another solemn piece of piffle, though of infinitely better workmanship, is “Joseph in Jeopardy,” by the English woman who uses the pen name of Frank Danby (Macmillan). Here we are introduced into just such scenes of melancholy impropriety as those which made a scandalous success of “Dodo”—the one novel which all second-rate English novelists imitate soon or late, just as all second rate Americans imitate “The Pit.” Fanny Juxton, wife of young Teddy Juxton, son of the enormously opulent Amos Juxton, carries on an intrigue with the Hon. Cosmo Merritt, son of Lord Loughborough, while Cosmo, in his turn, has an affair with Margaret Lemon, a dark-eyed and inflammatory grass widow. Meanwhile the sister of Teddy, married to Dennis Passifal, a foundling, harbors a sort of phosphorescent liking for Roderick Ainsworth, a tenor who sings flat, while Dennis himself, not to be outdone, succumbs to the charms of Lady Diana Wayne, the Hon. Cosmo’s widowed sister. I say “succumbs,” but the truth is that Dennis never proceeds beyond the statutory limit, for just at the point of departure he is recalled to defend the honor of his wife, whose dealings with Roderick have caused gossip. And so at the end it all comes to nothing—a genuine disappointment, believe me. Frank Danby, of course, is no beginner. The thing is done well, such as it is, but I leave it with the unpleasant impression that it was not worth doing.

More English novels. “When No Man Pursueth,” by Mrs. Belloc Lowndes (Kennerley), is a detective tale without a detective—all about a bigamist who feeds antimony to Wife No. 2 in the hope of hastening her dissolution and grabbing her money. “The Unofficial Honeymoon,” by Dolf Wyllarde (Lane), takes us to a lonely island in mid-ocean and shows us the orthodox pair of castaways. The mercury, for a while, is high in the tube, but nothing really happens, and even after the inevitable rescue it is for long a toss-up whether Leslie Mackelt will become a missionary to the leprous heathen or the bride of Major Miles Trelawny of the Carbines. “Fathers of Men,” by E. W. Hornung (Scribner), is the tale of a stable boy’s battle against social prejudice in an English public school—a rather startling departure for Mr. Hornung, who has chiefly devoted himself in the past to chronicles of roguery, and will go back to them posthaste if he values the free advice of an Old Subscriber. And “Christopher,” by Richard Pryce (Houghton-Mifflin), is a biographical novel in the leisurely Arnold Bennett manner—but with none of Bennett’s iconoclastic revelations in it. The tone of the thing, indeed, is almost early Victorian; its viewpoint is frankly romantic; it carries its hero from birth to calf love without once stepping over the borders of the obvious. A very graceful and gentlemanly writer, this Mr. Pryce, and one with an eye for the minor humors of character, but I am unable to add that he has anything very important or interesting to say.

Which brings us to “The Position of Peggy,” by Leonard Merrick (Kennerley), an Englishman who entered into celebrity not long ago with a very clever piece of sentimental comedy called “Conrad in Quest of His Youth.” Whether “The Position of Peggy” is a work of his remote nonage, exhumed to catch the crowd still chuckling over “Conrad,” or a shameless pot boiler, dictated to a red-haired stenographer in the same benign endeavor, and at the rate of five thousand words a day—on this point, I regret to say, I must leave you guessing, for I am not privy to the facts. But if you ask me flatly if the thing is a work of art, if it does credit to the author, then I make answer at once, and with the utmost assurance, that it is not and does not. It would be difficult, indeed, to find a greater contrast than that between these two books. The one is a thoroughly delightful volume of foolery, with a mellowing touch of poetry; the other is a tedious and irritating compound of improbability and sentimentality. The one, when I read it, made me glow—fat I may be, but I’m still human; the other, I must report veraciously, made me swear. Such is the effect of unexpected disappointment, of high moods foully blasted, of being played for an infant by an English fictioneer!

But what is “The Position of Peggy” about? Briefly, it tells the story of a young Londoner who tries for glory as an actor and fails to win it, and then tries for money as a dramatist and fails again. One day, in sore straits, he is tempted to write a blood tub melodrama. He gets fifteen pounds for it—and it makes him famous. Confusion worse confounded! The writing of melodramas is more than he can bear; the one venture will last him a lifetime. But the theatrical managers eager to caress and woo him as melodramatist, refuse absolutely to look at his serious plays. His huge success has ruined him! Thus we come to Page 305. We are in the midst, it is plain, of an engrossing situation. How is poor Christopher Tatham to extricate himself? How is he to break down the managerial idée fixe, and so get, by honest art, the wherewithal to marry Theodosia Moore? Alas, we find out that he does these things, but we never find out how. On Page 306 there is a jump of four years. Christopher, now an opulent dramatist, plants lobelias in his garden. Theodosia, sitting “in a basket chair under a laburnum tree,” inflames her mind with an illustrated weekly. Their joint infant bawls in the house. But how—wherewith—by what route? Mr. Merrick leaves us wondering. In the midst of his story he chops it off—an ineptness of structure matched by many a defect in detail. Maybe he argues that it is not the story of Christopher Tatham at all, but that of Peggy Harper. The title, indeed, hints as much. But if that is so, then why does he begin with Christopher and end with Christopher?

Another novelist whose form in the second round will disappoint many of his admirers is Jeffery Famol, who made a great success last year with a picaresque romance called “The Broad Highway,” a composition showing hard study of “Tom Jones” and “A Sentimental Journey” and many proofs of genuine talent. Two more books now come from Mr. Farnol. One of them, “My Lady Caprice” (Dodd-Mead), is a revised version of a tale first printed in 1906. The other, “The Money Moon” (Dodd-Mead), seems to be new. Obviously an economical fellow, for the central device of “My Lady Caprice” appears again in “The Money Moon”—the device, to wit, of enlisting the heroine’s young nephew in the desperate business of wooing her. The earlier story has a smartness, of speech and milieu, suggesting “The Dolly Dialogues:” one bows to a duchess and holds familiar and epigrammatic discourse with a peeress further down the scale. In the other there is a millionaire hero and a heroine beset by mortgages. How the nephew of that heroine goes hunting buried treasure to save her, and how the hero thoughtfully and discreetly buries it where it will be quickly found, and how the heroine, penetrating the humane plot, rebels against marriage and has to be kidnapped —all this makes a very sweet tale. “Sweet,” indeed, is the very word. No Richard Harding Davis himself ever imbued an idle romance with more flavor of the bonbon.

“The Sick-a-Bed Lady,” by Eleanor Hallowell Abbott (Century Co.), has a pleasant savor. Mrs. Abbott-Coburn has fancy as well as imagination. Her stories show a fantastic, a poetic touch. Their workmanship is of the most painstaking sort. They are not the common short stories of commerce.

Light and gladsome humor. For example, “That House I Bought,” by Henry Edward Warner (Dillingham). Here we have the familiar comedy of home making in the suburbs, but without the customary forced fun. Mr. Warner gets a gentle, a sentimental touch into it. It is an unpretentious but an extremely artistic little story that he tells. “Toddie,” by Gilbert Watson (Century Co.), carries us to Scotland and the links of St. Andrew, where David McClure, alias Toddie, a bibulous caddie of forty-odd, chases golf balls for Major Dale and nurses an uncompromising distrust of womankind. In the Major’s employ is a serving lady, Miss Devina Greig—a lady crossed in love and holding all mankind in abomination. How Toddie and Devina meet, how they blast each other with their incandescent hatreds, and how, thus emptied of those hatreds, they declare an eternal truce—this makes one-half of a double love story. There is dialect in it, but it is dialect kept with bounds. “The Jinx,” by Allen Sangree (Dillingham), is a collection of baseball stories, some melodramatic, some broadly farcical. One tells of a pair of diamond stars who overload themselves with stimulants in New York, essay to sneak aboard the boat for Boston—and awake next morning in the fo’castle of the three-master Melrose, outward bound for the River Plate. Another tells of a dashing third-baseman who brings his cross-eyed girl to the game every day and thereby afflicts his club with a baffling hoodoo. Finally he is paid one hundred dollars to keep her away. A third describes an extraordinary post season game, with but two spectators in the grandstand. In the main it is artificial stuff, but if you are a baseball crank it will probably amuse you. The same may be said of Charles E. Van Loan’s collection of baseball stories published under the title “The Ten Thousand-Dollar Arm” (Small-Maynard).

“When Woman Proposes,” by Anne Warner (Little- Brown), is the tale of a love chase. When Nathalie Arundel, rich, widowed and twenty-five, comes down the grand stairway in chapter one, she spies Capt. Francis Mowbray across the ballroom, standing by a pillar stroking his magnificent black mustache. A moment later she slips off her wedding ring and hands it to Mrs. d’Ypres, her fat and faithful friend. “Drop it in your chatelaine,” says Nathalie. “I don’t want it any more. I am going to marry that man down there.” And marry him she does, though the good Captain makes a brave resistance and the whole nation is thrown into a turmoil before he gives up.

The remaining novels must slide by us with a few words of calm, dispassionate description. “A Ship of Solace,” by Eleanor Mordaunt (Sturgis-Wallon), is the chronicle of a romantic sea voyage by sailing ship from Glasgow to Melbourne. There are two fair passengers —one a young widow suffering from the psychic sequela of a rowdy marriage, and the other an unwed friend who volunteers to nurse her. When Melbourne is reached at last there is a double job for some honest clergyman. The widow, completely recovered, marries her Glasgow medical adviser, who has rushed out by mail steamer to meet her; and the nurse—well, the nurse marries “the capting,” for all his Glasgow brogue. “The Confession of Artemus Quib ble,” by Arthur Train (Scribner), is the tale of a shyster lawyer’s rise and fall. “Redeemed,” by Mrs. George Sheldon Downe, author of “Gertrude Elliott’s Crucible” and “Step by Step” (Dillingham), shows us what a sad mistake was made by John Hungerford, the distinguished artist, when he divorced his wife Helen and took up with Marie Duncan, that hussy. “The Lotus Lantern,” by Mary Imlay Taylor and Martin Sabine (Little-Brown), is a new variation upon the standard story of the dashing Caucasian leftenant and the poor little Japanese maid, with the usual sprinkling of such ghastly words as yami-buki, musume, shoryobune and amma-kamishimo-go. Old friends are best! “Philip Steele,” by James Oliver Curwood (Bobbs-Merrill), is a romance of the Canadian Northwest. “The Loser Pays,” by Mary Openshaw (Small-Maynard), is a tale of the French Revolution. “The Flame,” by Louise E. Taber (Uarriman), deals with high life in San Francisco. “The Road,” by Frank Savile (Little-Brown), is a chronicle of love and daring in the Balkans. “An American Suffragette,” by Isaac N. Stevens (Rickey), is a tract for the New Thought in all its gorgeous forms. Which brings us—Gott sei Dank—over the page and in sight of the end.

Americans to ring down the curtain. For example, Meredith Nicholson, whose “Hoosier Chronicle” (Houghton-Mifflin) fills over six hundred pages and weighs exactly twenty-six ounces. A long and smooth running tale, with attractive pictures in it of various Indiana worthies, social and political, but not a thing to wring your heart or to add much to your understanding of other hearts. “John Rawn,” by Emerson Hough (Bobbs- Merrill), shows the same craftsmanship in detail and even worse weakness in plan. Mr. Hough’s purpose, it would appear, is to give us a full length study of a ruthless captain of industry, a man of insatiable money lust, a sort of modern Captain Kidd. If so, then why does he permit his hero to remain a plodding railroad clerk until nearly fifty, and why does he make him acquire riches, when his luck turns at last, in such an incredible, deus-ex-machinery manner? The whole story, indeed, goes to pieces when John Rawn beards the railroad magnates in their den and browbeats them into risking a fortune upon his half-baked invention.

Here’s a book that will interest you owners of motor boats—or riders in other people’s motor boats. It’s George Fitch’s “My Demon Motor Boat” (Little-Brown), which is the greatest analysis of the private character and hidden idiosyncrasies of this innocent-looking toy that I have come upon in a long career devoted to exploration of the depths to which depravity can descend. A motor boat looks easy. A couple of turns of the flywheel and we’re off. No ditches or telegraph poles to run into; no frightened pedestrians to run down; no speed laws or country constables to look out for; no punctures or blow-outs to fear. Just let ’er go. But Fitch says no. He says that when a motor boat “motes” it’s the pleasantest sport imaginable; but when it takes a notion to get cranky it’s about the all-firedest, cussedest, most cantankerous contraption ever devised for the abasement of man. Yet the owners of this “demon” boat got a lot of fun out of her, and so will you if you’ve one atom of humor in your system.

They say the Profession—of course to some minds there is only one profession—has been busily trying to identify the anonymous author of “My Actor Husband” (Lane), but I see no valid reason why the general reading public should join the feverish quest. In her foreword the embittered author of this unflattering picture of stage morals solemnly vouches for its “fidelity and strict adherence to the truth relative to the conditions which surround the player.” The lady doth protest too much. The parsnips of literature are no longer buttered by affidavits of this sort. Taken in detail, Webster’s Unabridged is a mine of truth. But it is not literature; it is not a novel. By the same token, “My Actor-Husband”— but you get my point.

And now, at the end, “The Old Nest,” by Rupert Hughes (Century Co.), a touching little tragedy of old age. How easy it would have been to make the thing maudlin, mawkish, unbearable! And with what fine art Mr. Hughes has made it nothing of the sort! Here, indeed, is a man who knows how to write—a dramatist and fictioneer upon whom it will be well to keep a weather eye. And here is a tale that will outlive a hundred best sellers. I do not say it made me weep, for I have neither wept nor blushed for seventeen years, but when I remember how near I came to doing the one thing, I almost do the other.

(Source: Hathitrust.org, https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=njp.32101076380458;view=1up;seq=548;size=125)