A Glance at the Spring Fiction

H.L. Mencken

The Smart Set/April, 1910

We have with us this evening a German novelist worth reading, a French novelist worth reading and a new American novelist worth reading—and watching. To relieve suspense, it may be as well to say at once that their names are Hermann Sudermann, Pierre de Coulevain and Charles Tenney Jackson, respectively, and that their books are denominated “The Song of Songs” (Huebsch, $1.40), “On the Branch” (Dutton, $1.25) and “The Day of Souls” (Bobbs-Merrill, $1.50).

Sudermann is no stranger to Americans. We know him as the author of “Magda” (“Heimat”), the best play that has come out of Germany since Ibsen opened his famous college of playwriting in the Cafe Luitpold at Munich; and some of us also know him as the author of other excellent plays and of several very bad ones, and as a novelist who has sat under a number of masters and done creditable work, in the manner of each. He is, in brief, in the front rank of living German writers, and saving only Gerhart Hauptmann, there is no other man in that rank.

Extravagant praise? Not at all. I am speaking just now of living German authors. You will find no Goethes and Schillers, nor even Lessings, Klopstocks, Herders and Heines in Germany today, for the Germans are too busy in their factories and shipyards to be producing great literature. But if Sudermann thus falls short of the giants, it is certainly not absurd to compare him to the captains of the second line—to the younger Dumas and Thomas Hardy, D’Annunzio and Pinero, Maeterlinck and George Moore. He is, indeed, a man of rare and splendid talents, a shrewd observer of the human comedy, an acute analyst, an artist with a sure feeling for color and form; and if he had but one thing more, he might easily cross the shadowy line separating the merely respectable from the incomparable. That one thing is an individual, comprehensible and credible philosophy of life, born of a mighty personality—a philosophy which would set off its author in an unmistakable way from all other delvers into motives and all other interpreters of acts.

It goes without saying that such a philosophy is to be found in the writings of every imaginative writer of true genius. We cannot think of Dickens, for example, without recalling his sentimental view of the world, with its cardinal doctrine that all human ills are to be cured by love. And in the same way, we cannot detach Thackeray from his tolerant cynicism, nor Shakespeare from his proud resignationism, nor Milton from his lofty idealism, nor Fielding from his buoyant optimism, his belief in mankind, his firm conviction that the mere being alive is sufficient for happiness. A great writer’s philosophical outlook is the essential part of him—the element that separates him, even more than his facility of expression, from the average man. Unless that outlook be comprehensible and unvarying—unless, by reading him, we can gain it, and the gaining of it helps us, in some measure, to face life with better understanding and greater comfort, his work remains mere yarn spinning and we soon forget it.

In Sudermann a philosophy is lacking. He seems to be eternally flabbergasted by life. An observer of extraordinary shrewdness, he comes swiftly into the breakers when he attempts to interpret his observations. It is not that he is struck by the notion that life is meaningless—for that notion, as the case of Joseph Conrad proves, is not inconsistent with clear thinking—but that he seeks to read hazy, antagonistic and often puerile meanings into it. One too often misses in his novels and plays the passionate earnestness and certainty, the clear, clean-cut logic that one finds in “Germinal,” “Barry Lyndon” and “Anna Karenina.” He is swayed too much by the grotesque literary “movements” which inflame and torture the cognoscienti of the Berlin caf£s. He is alternately idealist and realist, revolutionist and reactionary, pessimist and optimist; and so his writings lose vitality, because there is no dominant master note in them expressive of the man and of the one man only.

This lack is woefully apparent in “The Song of Songs.” The book, to summarize it in a phrase, is a study in feminine eroticism. We are introduced to Lily Czepanek at the period of adolescence, and we follow her closely until the fires of her youth are spent. Lily is no common drab, but a civilized and educated young woman, whose thirst for male caresses is constantly conditioned and ameliorated by other and more complex yearnings. And yet whenever the issue is fairly joined between a man and an idea, it is the man that always wins her. At sixteen she is enamored of a priggish student and makes a vain effort to seduce him. By the time she is eighteen she has become the hunted instead of the huntress, and it is now merely a matter of making her choice. She chooses a doddering colonel of cavalry—a decayed rake—a “connoisseur of women,” as Sudermann calls him. The old fool marries her and carries her off to his castle in West Prussia.

And now begin Lily’s real adventures. She is genuinely fond of the colonel and has a sincere desire to do him honor, but it quickly becomes evident that he is hopelessly deficient as a lover. A younger man volunteers for that exhausting office—an unmoral ex-lieutenant, who fights the colonel gaily when he is found out, and then laughs a light laugh and betakes himself to America, leaving Lily as a keepsake to a rich friend in Berlin. Lily, for a while, avoids the rich friend, saying to herself that she will stick to celibacy and earn a living. But before long we find her in a comfortable flat, paid for by the friend, and by and by strange hats begin to appear in the hall. One of the owners of hats is an earnest and innocent young scholar, and with him Lily falls desperately in love. It is a grand passion at last, and Lily begins to torture herself with the problem that always oppresses contaminated ladies when they fall in love: Shall she tell him everything at once, or wait for him to find out?

She decides upon the former course, and the scholar makes the noble answer that fools always make. He says he believes in her essential purity—that he thinks she has been a victim of circumstances—that he will trust her henceforth. And then, with one leg, as it were, over the altar rail, Lily pours out an alcoholic libation to the kindly gods—and in her liquorish babbling the truth comes out. The scholar, after all, is not altogether asinine. Once it becomes as plain as a pikestaff, he can tell the difference between sins that have sprung from within and sins that have been forced in from without. He now sees Lily for what she really is, and so he goes away, leaving her to her rich friend. Taking warning, she marries that gentleman out of hand. The years are passing, and another such chance may not come again.

As I have said, this story is well written and worth reading, but for all that, there is no firm grip in it. One wonders more than once what Sudermann himself thinks of Lily and her doings. His opinion is never clear; it seems to vary, indeed, from chapter to chapter. In a truly great novel there is no such muddiness. We see everything clearly through one assertive personality. In “The Song of Songs” there are pale reflections of half a dozen personalities. Here and there Sudermann seems to be trying to write like Zola; in other places he is a romanticist; in yet other places he is not far from the sugary sentimentality of Heimburg and Das Gartenlaube. Lily swoons at critical moments, like the heroine of a tale for chambermaids and high school girls. The best writing is in the first chapter, wherein Lily’s home and her father and mother are described. If the rest of the book maintained the standard set there it would be a great novel. As it is, it is merely an uncommonly clever story.

“On the Branch” is half novel and half essay. The author, despite her masculine nom de plume, is a woman, and the history she endeavors to set forth is that of a woman. It is no conventional tale of young love and high hope. Love, indeed, is long since dead when it opens and hope has begun to wither. At our first glimpse of the woman she is probably fifty years old. True enough, we go back a bit into her past, but we review it as she has learned to review it herself—that is to say, somewhat objectively and in the light of the philosophic calm of middle age. The whole story, indeed, has to do with the genesis and development of that serenity which follows the decay of the passions of youth. We see an intelligent, introspective woman slipping into the autumn of life; we follow her, step by step, along the road to contentment.

It is hinted that the story, in great part, is autobiographic. Certainly, an air of reality clings to it. One gathers from it the impression that one has held converse during a pleasant holiday with an oldish woman of agreeable personality—a woman who has thought things out for herself and attained to clear self-expression, and yet one who remains throughout more the woman than the sage.

“The Day of Souls” is the third of our trio of books worth reading. According to “Who’s Who in America,” the author, Charles Tenney Jackson, is a Missourian, who has lived the roaring life of the armed camp and is now a newspaper man in San Francisco. We learn from that same book that “The Day of Souls” was in preparation as far back as the fall of 1907, when the biographies for the 1908-9 edition were prepared. This indicates that Mr. Jackson is a somewhat deliberate and careful workman, which fact, in itself, would be sufficient to separate him from the Oppenheims and the McCutcheons, the Chamberses and the Marion Crawfords. Much more convincing evidence of his differentiation is to be found in the story itself, for it is a story with a beginning, a middle and an end; a story with good writing in it and credible personages; a story showing keen observation and clear thought; a story that leads me to venture the prophecy, publicly and in indelible ink, that Mr. Jackson, if he keeps on writing and avoids religiously the snares of a department store success, will one day write a full-length, first-class novel, and maybe more than one.

Not that “The Day of Souls” is a masterpiece or even an entirely satisfying journeyman piece. Far from it! As a matter of fact, the story wabbles in more than one place, and now and then the probabilities are a bit stretched; but these faults are more than counterbalanced by the virtues that accompany them. The fable itself is not complex. It concerns a young man who finds himself drawn down into the cesspool of moral and social rottenness which underlay the San Francisco that was before the earthquake, and with the manner of his redemption. Not only in scene, but also in method it recalls the Frank Norris of “McTeague.” There are the same picturesque descriptions of the colorful town; there is the same genial humor; the same vein of mysticism crops up occasionally. It is no discredit to follow Frank Norris. If more of our young novelists would study his novels there would be a more hopeful outlook for American letters.

I am not going into a detailed account of Mr. Jackson’s story. The story itself is of much less importance than the way in which it is told. The author is upon the right track. Of all the young Americans whose books have come to me within the past two years, he and another Easterner transplanted to the Coast—to wit, Henry Milner Rideout, author of “Dragon’s Blood” —give the greatest promise. Mr. Jackson is thirty-five years old and Mr. Rideout is thirty-three. By the time they are forty they will be better known.

Now come half a dozen or more books of the sort that smirk at us in the bookshops, from mighty pyramids, for two or three weeks—and then go to join the rose of yesterday. Such books, I take it, do no great harm in the world. They are written, in the main, in a tongue easily understood by anyone who speaks English, and their characters are inoffensive automata whose passions are seldom corrupting and never complex. They make few demands upon the emotions and none whatever upon the powers of ratiocination. In going through them, indeed, one observes that their psychic effect is confined to a feeling of mild irritation, as if some patient slave were tickling one’s Adam’s apple with a feather. It is not painful, that irritation, but it inhibits slumber and wards off introspection, and so the book itself serves a useful purpose, the which purpose is exactly the same as that of pinochle, comic supplements, jig-saw puzzles, crocheting or home drinking. That is to say, it kills time without out raging the body or burdening the mind. A man might wipe out a Sunday afternoon just as effectively by swallowing paregoric and falling snoring to the floor, but that would spoil his appetite for malt liquor in the evening. He might, again, spend the afternoon reading Kant, but that would involve a tedious exercise of the faculty of cognition. So he does neither, but, instead, plays pinochle with the janitor, looks through the Sunday papers, practises the art of mixing gin fizzes or reads a popular novel.

One of the best of these anti-soporifics in the current lot is “Lord Loveland Discovers America,” by those refined and fashionable authors, C. N. and A. M. Williamson (Doubleday, Page, $1.20). The Williamsons, as they say at Lake Mohonk, have a good deal of class to them. Nine times out of ten an automobile is the hero of their fable—an automobile much more human, but hardly more fascinating, than the dashing devil who drives it or the super-beautiful goddess who sits by his side, jogging him affectionately at every water break. Not uncommonly Royalty Itself inhabits the middle distance of the landscape. The air has an aristocratic keenness; no one bothers about Hell; there are excellent victuals three times a day. Altogether, the reader enjoys his glimpse of a richer, cleaner, happier world, and is the better for it.

In the present volume there is a slight variation, for Lord Loveland, when he lands in New York in search of an heiress, falls almost at once into the hands of the Goths and Huns, and so finds himself walking the highways of that pitiless town with a grotesque dress coat upon his back and no money in his pantaloons. Suffering purifies and ennobles Loveland. His heart grows soft; he learns to love; in the end he gains the honest affection of a—but I say no more. No, she is no gilded child of plutocracy, no millioned maid of Pittsburg, all money and freckles, ambition and thumbs. I doubt if the poor girl is worth over $900,000. But she has a heart, and that heart goes out to Loveland.

“Passers-By,” by Anthony Partridge (Little-Brown, $1.50), is a tale of mystery. At the start we behold a beautiful street singer, accompanied by an intelligent monkey and a ferocious hunchback, going down a dark alley in London to sing. Why an alley? Because Fate wills it so. The rear wall of a great hotel looms high on one side, and far up, at an open window, an elegant gentleman smokes a cigarette. What more natural than for him to change his collar, light another cigarette, come downstairs, draw a staggering wallop from the hunchback, and then, after regaining his senses, take the girl to dinner at a sumptuous lobster palace? She goes in her rags, but her beauty benumbs the headwaiter and so she gets all she wants to eat—aye, and to drink!

And now enters the wicked Marquis of Ellingham, a statesman with a past so dark that even his wife hates to think of it. How did he live before he came into his peerage? So far, no one seems to know. But one hears of a sudden the clank of chains and scents the disinfectants of a dungeon. Paris—the police—the Black Fox—Jacques Leblun, the French detective! Again I cease. It wouldn’t be fair to tell you all that happens, and besides, I don’t know. The true way to read a story of mystery is to stop in the middle and then burn the book, or, if the rules forbid fires in the cells, send it back to the warden. Its mystery thus remains an interminable delight, to torture you pleasantly for all eternity. If you read to the end the solution is usually so absurdly simple that you scorn yourself for not having guessed it, or so diabolically complex that you can’t fathom it.

Our next, brethren, is “The Sea of Matrimony,” by Jessie H. Childs (Broadway Pub. Co., $1.50). The voyager upon that tempestuous ocean is Elise Sinclair, a lady far past her nonage. She has been married, indeed, for a good long while before she meets John Maynard, one of nature’s noble men, but as she gazes into his eyes a tidal wave of passion goes roaring through her system.

But nothing worse ensues. “Few women, fortunately,” says the author, “have the polygamous tendency which seems so natural to most men.” And yet it takes three hundred pages to tell the story of Elise’s battle against the magnetism radiated from John Maynard’s eyes. Part of the time she escapes temptation by taking a hand in the amours of her cousin, Winthrop Raymond. Winthrop has an affair with Mary Adams, his stenographer, and it is only her death that saves a scandal. Elise, after attending Mary’s funeral, returns to her own troubles, and for a while it seems certain that she and John will end as fugitives from justice. But deliverance comes to her at last in the form of Hindoo philosophy. The philosopher is a grafter named Mrs. Morse, who has been to India and penetrated to the inmost secrets of psychotherapy. She saves Elise without recourse to drugs or surgery. A few whispered words and Error yields to Truth. The Divine All gobbles those immoral Red Corpuscles. In tune with the Infinite, cleansed of all Earthly Impurity, denaturized by the Word, absorbed in the Eternal Consciousness, the Ether, the Me, the Afflatus, Elise finds that she can look at John, and even touch him, without dizziness or shortness of breath. As we say good-bye to them they are in the doldrums of the sixties, and Elise’s son Henry is about to marry John’s daughter Louise. Thus their Life Currents mingle at last, engulfed by the One.

A masterpiece of fiction! A book of the tenth dimension! How puny sound the philosophical maunderings of Kant, Spencer and Nietzsche, the scientific bombast of Huxley, Haeckel and Weismann, beside such clear statements of Fundamental Truth! Welcome to the synagogue, O subtile Miss Childs! A fair Sir Oliver Lodge come to judgment!

“The Living Mummy,” by Ambrose Pratt (Stokes, $1.50), is a thriller of conventional cut. No doubt the astute reader has already guessed from a glance at the title that the scene is Egypt, that there are archeologists in it, that one of them discovers a remark able mummy and brings the thing to life, and that the resurrected mummy plays the devil. It is even so—and much more! A good deal of quasi-scientific flapdoodle is thrown in for lagniappe, and the English, in the main, is rather better than that of the average Indiana genius.

“Cab No. 44,” by R. F. Foster (Stokes, $1.50), is a yarn of mystery and indistinguishable from any other yarn of mystery. If you like yarns of mystery, you will like this yarn of mystery—which goes without saying. If, on the contrary, you do not like yarns of mystery, you will not like this yarn of mystery—which also goes without saying. It is impossible to say any more, for yarns of mystery are seldom to be judged by the standards made and ordained for ordinary books. A new race of critics should be bred to study them, determine their canons and write about them learnedly. The same critics might devote their idle moments to those allied art forms, the college yell, the Salvation Army hymn, the stump speech, the New Thought essay and the novelized drama.

Which reminds me that two new novelized dramas await examination. They are “The Sins of Society,” by Cecil Raleigh, who also wrote the melodrama upon which it is based (Dillingham, $1.50), and “The Fortune Hunter,” a version of Winchell Smith’s comedy by Louis Joseph Vance (Dodd Mead, $1.50). Of the first it may be said quite frankly that it is villainous. Mr. Raleigh is an English play manufacturer of the fourth class, who has the contract for supplying the annual Drury Lane melodrama. He differs in degree, but not in kind, from Theodore Kremer, Owen Davis and Hal Reid. In the hierarchy of letters his place is not far above that of Sylvanus Cobb and the Duchess. Among dramatists, even Charles Klein and other such platitudinizers are beyond him. He is, in brief, a bad maker of bad plays, and “The Sins of Society” proves that he is a worse maker of worse novels. The story is tawdry, silly, cheap, banal. Its characters are the stuffed dummies of the popular stage. It is written in the strained, ridiculous fashion of a dime novel. The very capitalization is upon an absurd plan, recalling the compositions of blockhead schoolboys. It has no merit that I have been able to find. It is utter and unmitigated balderdash.

Coming after such, “The Fortune Hunter” seems almost good. But the difference between the two is merely one of degree. Both belong to the lowest stratum of printed books—below the works of Marie Corelli and Hall Caine, even below those of the psychical researchers.

“The Seventh Noon” (Small Maynard, $1.50) is a new thriller by Frederick Orin Bartlett, author of “The Web of the Golden Spider.” As literature it scores a zero of diameter equal to the earth’s, but as an antisoporific it has considerable efficacy. The hero, finding life sour to the palate, takes a dose of some mysterious henbane which will kill him in a week, and resolves to devote his last seven days to good deeds. Those good deeds take the form of helping a beautiful maiden in distress—and thereby hangs a galloping tale. Peter Donaldson does not die. Not on your life! The poison shakes him, but doesn’t actually kill him. On the last page he and the maiden are face to face. Her eyes grow moist and she smiles. The joy of it is too much for her. . . .

Mr. Bartlett does not give the name of the poison that Donaldson so rashly swallows. By the aid of a friendly toxicologist I am able to supply that lack. It is a synthetic alkaloid called anticamphotetrahydroquinonsulphobenzoisalicytriacidomanganine.

“Deep Sea Warriors,” by Basil Lubbock (Dodd-Mead, $1.50), is a chronicle of the sea, and the canned review on the cover says that it “deserves to stand with that classic of two generations ago, R. H. Dana’s ‘Two Years Before the Mast.’” In that judgment I find myself unable to acquiesce. I have no doubt whatever that Mr. Lubbock has had a lot of experience at sea, and that he makes no landsman’s blunders when he discourses of the good ship Benares’s rigging, but it is one thing to know the sea and quite another thing to write a first-rate sea story. “Deep Sea Warriors” belongs to a class some distance below the first. It has plenty of action, plenty of meteorology and plenty of polyglot dialogue, but it misses, by many miles, the fine thrills of “Two Years Before the Mast,” the abiding reality of “The Cruise of the Cachelot,” and the incomparable art of “The Nigger of the Narcissus.”

“The Danger Trail,” by James Oliver Curwood (Bobbs-Merrill, $1.50), need not detain us. It is a tale of love and daring in the Frozen North, with the customary American hero and the orthodox half-breed heroine. As such tales go, it is not a bad one. The fighting begins promptly; there is plenty of it, and the hero faces death like a man. But it cannot be said that the author gets much suspense into the chronicle. When on page twelve John Howland glances out of the window of the Windsor Hotel at Prince Albert and sees in the darkness “a face on which the shimmering moonlight falls,” you know very well that somewhere toward page three hundred that face and John’s face will touch noses pleasantly in a passionate, ante-nuptial buss.

Finally, to make an end of novels, we come to two that are already familiar to you, for both have appeared in the Smart Set as novelettes. One of them is “The Duke’s Price,” by Demetra and Kenneth Brown (Houghton – Mifflin, $1.50), and the other is “The Man Outside,” by Wyndham Martyn (Dodd-Mead, $1.50). The former was printed in the November, 1909, number under the title of “The Romance of an American Duchess,” and the latter in the September, 1909, number, as “John Paget’s Progress.” To each a good deal of new matter has been added. You may here look for me to prove that I am uncompromisingly just, even when dealing with the work of colleagues, by denouncing both stories as bad ones; but the facts in the case rob you of that elevating exhibition, for they enable me to lay my hand on my heart and say that both are good ones.

Of books about spooks there is no end. The eloquent Hyslop, the pious Lodge, the inimitable Garland and a dozen other serpents of unearthly wisdom are on the job day and night, and scarcely a month goes by without its new volume, dripping with amazing syllogisms and epoch-making marvels. The latest is “Eusapia Palladino and Her Phenomena” (Dodge, $2.00), by Hereward Carrington. Carrington is now Eusapia’s manager and press agent, and in consequence the vulgar may be disposed to scoff at his testimonials, but his book should still those sneers, for it shows how cynically he once doubted her and how she brought him into camp. He describes her tricks in great detail, with photographs, diagrams and lists of witnesses, and defies anyone to explain them.

This matter of table tapping and other such buncombe is such an old story that I hesitate to go over it. To the man of what Professor James calls a “tough” mind, the so-called “proofs” of the necromancers are tedious nonsense, but to those with the will to believe they are abundantly convincing. It is all a question of temperament, of training, of mental habit. The man of the first class maintains that the burden of proof is upon the table tappers —that they should come out of their dark rooms and do their tricks under fair test conditions, or forever hold their peace. The man of the second class, on the contrary, holds that all their claims are to be granted until disproved, in the face of the plain fact that it is impossible, as a rule, to disprove them. This last position makes intelligent debate impossible. As for me, I am firmly convinced, after reading Mr. Carrington’s earnest book, that Eusapia is an old girl of deep humor, who must get many a hearty but secret chuckle out of the credulity of those who pay hard cash to see her perform. That sane human beings should still believe that she communes with spirits, after she has been detected so often in unblushing fraud, seems a far more marvelous thing to me than any of the miracles she claims to perform.


The Lady of Big Shanty —

by F. Berkeley Smith. (Doubleday-Page, $1.50.)

Showing how a New York society woman, brought to the edge of the abyss by unhealthful coddling, finds her lost womanhood in the wilderness. A story of fair promise.


Putting On The Screws —

by Gouverneur Morris. (Doubleday-Page, $1.00.)

A sentimental little story in the Dickens manner, done with un usual skill. If you have tears to shed, you will shed them over the eleven Coleses and the deceitful angel they entertain unawares.


Abe Martin’s Almanack —

by Kin Hubbard. (Abe Martin Pub. Co., $1.00.)

A little book of genuine humor. Such burlesques are common, but never have I encountered one so amusing. The canned reviews on the cover are too modest. It is of chuckles and loud laughs all compact.


A Modern City—

by William Kirk and others. (Univ. of Chicago Press, $2.70.)

An effort by eleven specialists to describe the population, commerce and government of a typical American city—to wit, Providence, R. I. A sound and workmanlike book, of keen interest to every serious student of politics and political economy.


The Lilac Girl—

by Ralph Henry Barbour (Lippincott, $2.00.)

Another of Mr. Barbour’s sentimental stories, bound in lilac cloth and with colored pictures.


Speeches and New Letters of Henrik Ibsen—

Tr. by Arne Kildal. (Badger, $3.00.)

A collection of interesting contributions to Ibseniana, with a remarkable painstaking bibliography of Ibsen commentaries and an almost complete record of English and American performances of the Ibsen plays.


In the Border Country—

by Josephine Daskam Bacon. (Doubleday-Page, $1.00.)

Three fantastic stories in one volume, with exquisite decorations in color by Clara Elsene Peck.


Tag, or the Chien Boule Dog—

by Valance J. Patriarche. (Page, $1.00.)

The diverting story of a pair of honeymooners who pick up, en route, little Bateese and his “boule dog,” and find it much easier to carry them along than to lose them.


Hindrances of Life—

by Johannes Muller. (Kennerley, $1.50.)

Platitudinous balderdash by a German. Let Drs. Orison Sweet Marden, Charles Wagner, Samuel McComb and the rest of the worry doctors look to their laurels, for here comes a rival with a sure cure.


Stokes Encyclopedia of Music and Musicians —

by L. J. De Bekker. (Stokes, $3.00.)

A new edition of this excellent work, with the few errors of the first edition corrected. It is the most satisfactory one-volume musical reference book in English.

(Source: Hathitrust.org, https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=njp.32101076426160;view=1up;seq=351)

The works of H.L.. Mencken and other American journalists are now freely available at The Archive of American Journalism. Visit our bookstore for single-volume collections–-ideal for research, reference use or casual reading.