A Novel of the First Rank

H.L. Mencken

The Smart Set/November, 1911

IF you miss reading “Jennie Gerhardt,” by Theodore Dreiser (Harpers), you will miss the best American novel, all things considered, that has reached the book counters in a dozen years. On second thought, change “a dozen” into “twenty-five.” On third thought, strike out everything after “counters.” On fourth thought, strike out everything after “novel.” Why back and fill? Why evade and qualify? Hot from it, I am firmly convinced that “Jennie Gerhardt” is the best American novel I have ever read, with the lonesome but Himalayan exception of “Huckleberry Finn,” and so I may as well say it aloud and at once and have done with it. Am I forgetting “The Scarlet Letter,” “ The Rise of Silas Lapham” and (to drag an exile unwillingly home) “What Maisie Knew”? I am not. Am I forgetting “McTeague” and “The Pit”? I am not. Am I for getting the stupendous masterpieces of James Fenimore Cooper, beloved of the pedagogues, or those of James Lane Allen, Mrs. Wharton and Dr. S. Weir Mitchell, beloved of the women’s clubs and literary monthlies? No. Or “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” or “Rob o’ the Bowl” or “Gates Ajar” or “Ben Hur” or “David Harum” or “Lewis Rand” or “Richard Carvel”? No. Or “The Hungry Heart” or Mr. Dreiser’s own “Sister Carrie”? No. I have all these good and bad books in mind. I have read them and survived them and in many cases enjoyed them.

And yet in the face of them, and in the face of all the high authority, constituted and self-constituted, behind them, it seems to me at this moment that “Jennie Gerhardt” stands apart from all of them, and a bit above them. It lacks the grace of this one, the humor of that one, the perfect form of some other one; but taking it as it stands, grim, gaunt, mirthless, shapeless, it remains, and by long odds, the most impressive work of art that we have yet to show in prose fiction—a tale not unrelated, in its stark simplicity, its profound sincerity, to “Germinal” and “Anna Karenina” and “Lord Jim”—a tale assertively American in its scene and its human material, and yet so European in its method, its point of view, its almost reverential seriousness, that one can scarcely imagine an American writing it. Its personages are few in number, and their progress is along a path that seldom widens, but the effect of that progress is ever one of large movements and large masses. One senses constantly the group behind the individual, the natural law behind the human act. The result is an indefinable impression of bigness, of epic dignity. The thing is not a mere story, not a novel in the ordinary American meaning of the word, but a criticism and an interpretation of life—and that interpretation loses nothing in validity by the fact that its burden is the doctrine that life is meaningless, a tragedy without a moral, a joke without a point. What else have Moore and Conrad and Hardy been telling us these many years? What else does all the new knowledge of a century teach us? One by one the old ready answers have been disposed of. Today the one intelligible answer to the riddle of aspiration and sacrifice is that there is no answer at all.

“The power to tell the same story in two forms,” said George Moore not long ago, “is the sign of the true artist.” You will think of this when you read “Jennie Gerhardt,” for in its objective plan, and even in its scheme of subjective unfolding, it suggests “Sister Carrie” at every turn. Reduce it to a hundred words, and those same words would also describe that earlier study of a woman’s soul, with scarcely the change of a syllable. Jennie Gerhardt, like Carrie Meeber, is a rose grown from turnip seed. Over each, at the start, hangs poverty, ignorance, the dumb helplessness of the Shudra—and yet in each there is that indescribable something, that element of essential gentleness, that innate, inward beauty which levels all caste barriers and makes Esther a fit queen for Ahasuerus. And the history of each, reduced to its elements, is the history of the other. Jennie, like Carrie, escapes from the physical miseries of the struggle for existence only to taste the worse miseries of the struggle for happiness. Not, of course, that we have in either case a moral, maudlin fable of virtue’s fall; Mr. Dreiser, I need scarcely assure you, is too dignified an artist, too sane a man, for any such banality. Seduction, in point of fact, is not all tragedy for either Jennie or Carrie. The gain of each, until the actual event has been left behind and obliterated by experiences more salient and poignant, is rather greater than her loss, and that gain is to the soul as well as to the creature. With the rise from want to security, from fear to ease, comes an awakening of the finer perceptions, a widening of the sympathies, a gradual unfolding of the delicate flower called personality, an increased capacity for loving and living. But with all this, and as a part of it, there comes, too, an increased capacity for suffering—and so in the end, when love slips away and the empty years stretch before, it is the awakened and supersentient woman that pays for the folly of the groping, bewildered girl. The tragedy of Carrie and Jennie, in brief, is not that they are degraded but that they are lifted up, not that they go to the gutter but that they escape the gutter.

But if the two stories are thus variations upon the same somber theme, if each starts from the same place and arrives at the same dark goal, if each shows a woman heartened by the same hopes and tortured by the same agonies, there is still a vast difference between them, and that difference is the measure of the author’s progress in his art. “Sister Carrie” was a first sketch, a rough piling-up of observations and impressions, disordered and often incoherent. In the midst of the story of Carrie, Mr. Dreiser paused to tell the story of Hurstwood—an astonishingly vivid and tragic story, true enough, but still one that broke the back of the other. In “Jennie Gerhardt” he falls into no such over-elaboration of episode. His narrative goes forward steadily from beginning to end. Episodes there are, of course, but they keep their proper place, their proper bulk. It is always Jennie that holds the attention; it is in Jennie’s soul that every scene is ultimately played out. Her father and mother, Senator Brander the god of her first worship, her daughter Vesta and Lester Kane, the man who makes and mars her—all these are drawn with infinite painstaking, and in every one of them there is the blood of life. But it is Jennie that dominates the drama from curtain to curtain. Not an event is unrelated to her; not a climax fails to make clearer the struggles going on in her mind and heart.

I have spoken of reducing “Jennie Gerhardt” to a hundred words. The thing, I fancy, might be actually done. The machinery of the tale is not complex; it has no plot, as plots are understood in these days of “mystery” stories; no puzzles madden the reader. It is dull, unromantic poverty that sends Jennie into the world. Brander finds her there, lightly seduces her, and then discovers that, for some strange gentleness within her, he loves her. Lunacy—but he is willing to face it out. Death, however, steps in; Brander, stricken down without warning, leaves Jennie homeless and a mother. Now enters Lester Kane—not the villain of the books, but a normal, decent, cleanly American of the better class, well to do, level-headed, not too introspective, eager for the sweets of life. He and Jennie are drawn together; if love is not all of the spirit, then it is love that binds them. For half a dozen years the world lets them alone. A certain grave respectability settles over their relation; if they are not actually married, then it is only because marriage is a mere formality, to be put off until tomorrow. But bit by bit they are dragged into the light. Kane’s father, dying with millions, gives him two years to put Jennie away. The penalty is poverty; the reward is wealth—and not only wealth itself, but all the pleasant and well remembered things that will come with it: the lost friends of other days, a sense of dignity and importance, an end of apologies and evasions, good society, the comradeship of decent women—particularly the comradeship of one decent woman. Kane hesitates, makes a brave defiance, thinks it over—and finally yields. Jennie does not flood him with tears. She has made progress in the world, has Jennie; the simple faith of the girl has given way to the pride and poise of the woman. Five years later Kane sends for her. He is dying. When it is over, Jennie goes back to her lonely home, and there, like Carrie Meeber before her, she faces the long years with dry eyes and an empty heart. “Days and days in endless reiteration, and then—”

A moral tale? Not at all. It has no more moral than a string quartet or the first book of Euclid. But a philosophy of life is in it, and that philosophy is the same profound pessimism which gives a dark color to the best that we have from Hardy, Moore, Zola and the great Russians—the pessimism of disillusion— not the jejune, Byronic thing, not the green sickness of youth, but that pessimism which comes with the discovery that the riddle of life, despite all the fine solutions offered by the learned doctors, is essentially insoluble. One can discern no intelligible sequence of cause and effect in the agonies of Jennie Gerhardt. She is, as human beings go, of the nobler, finer metal. There is within her a great capacity for service, a great capacity for love, a great capacity for happiness. And yet all that life has to offer her, in the end, is the mere license to live. The days stretch before her “in endless reiteration. “ She is a prisoner doomed to perpetual punishment for some fanciful, incomprehensible crime against the gods who make their mirthless sport of us all. And to me, at least, she is more tragic thus than Lear on his wild heath or Prometheus on his rock.

Nothing of the art of the literary lapidary is visible in this novel. Its form is the simple one of a panorama unrolled. Its style is unstudied to the verge of barrenness. There is no painful groping for the exquisite, inevitable word; Mr. Dreiser seems content to use the common, even the commonplace coin of speech. On the very first page one encounters “frank, open countenance,” “diffident manner,” “helpless poor,” “untutored mind,” “honest necessity” and half a dozen other such ancients. And yet in the long run it is this very naiveté which gives the story much of its impressiveness. The narrative, in places, has the effect of a series of unisons in music—an effect which, given a solemn theme, vastly exceeds that of the most ornate polyphony. One cannot imagine “Jennie Gerhardt” done in the gipsy phrases of Meredith, the fugual manner of James. One cannot imagine that stark, stenographic dialogue adorned with the brilliants of speech. The thing could have been done only in the way that it has been done. As it stands, it is a work of art from which I for one would not care to take anything away—not even its gross crudities, its incessant returns to C major. It is a novel that depicts the life we Americans are living with extreme accuracy and criticizes that life with extraordinary in sight. It is a novel, I am convinced, of the very first consideration.

After the Fifth Symphony—or any other of the nine, for that matter—it is not easy to listen to a Chopin nocturne, and after Mr. Dreiser’s story, by the same token, you will not find it easy to read the common novels of the month. For example, “Kennedy Square,” by the protean and facile F. Hopkinson Smith (Scribner). The tale here is one of young love, and the sugar drips from it like Spanish moss from a bayou cypress. Young Harry Rutter, in love with Kate Seymour, puts a bullet into Langdon Willits for insulting her and is turned out of the house by his stern papa for his pains. A harsh old laird is Col. Talbot Rutter, of Moorlands. Kate is harsh, too, for she affects to be outraged by Harry’s act; and so in despair he rushes off to South America, and there raises a large black beard. When he returns, three years later, that beard so well disguises him that he is turned out of Moorlands again. But halt; we are already on page 403 and it is time to have done. So the old laird relents, Kate relents, Harry shaves and the curtain falls.

Namby-pamby, archaic stuff, without the slightest excuse for existence. Romance may be made delightful, even to adult males, as Mr. Locke and his followers have shown, but to make it so requires ingenuity and wit, both of which are missing from Mr. Smith’s saccharine story. The scene is laid in the Baltimore of the forties, and Edgar Allan Poe, far gone in liquor, is dragged in by the heels. The authenticity of the local color may be gauged from the fact that a Baltimore darkey is made to pronounce Anne Arundel “Ann’rundel.” What the mokes of the Chesapeake city actually say is “Ann’ran’l”—and so notorious and insidious is that pronunciation that most of the white Baltimoreans have borrowed it. A trivial detail, of course, but in a book which shows an utter lack of large merits, one may be pardoned, perhaps, for seeking small ones, and for calling attention to it when they are not found.

“Her Little Young Ladyship,” by the late Myra Kelly MacNaughtan (Scribner), is another exceedingly frail reed of fiction. Mrs. MacNaughtan, in her too brief day, sent forth many a humorous and incisive study of childlife among the exotic barbarians who now dwell among us, but here she is venturing upon a polite romance in the best seller manner, with an English earl for hero and a beautiful American girl for heroine. It starts off gaily and humanly enough, but before the scene shifts across the water the characters stiffen into conventional dummies and the incidents sink to commonplace melodrama. No doubt the thing was done with pathetically failing powers. Let us remember Mrs. MacNaughtan for the sounder work of her happier years. “Such a Woman,” by Owen and Leita Kildare (Dillingham), goes to pieces in the same fashion. The earlier chapters, for all their squalor, yet have evident truth and sincerity in them. Blackwell’s Island and Fleming’s saloon are made real to us, and Mary O’Connor, drunken and degraded, is made real, too. But later on, when Mary becomes a prize exhibit of the missions and the Rev. Ervin Stoddard seeks her hand in holy marriage—then the thing ceases to enchant. Mr. Kildare, it appears, died before the book was completed, and his wife undertook to finish it. A laudable enterprise, but one in which good intentions could not take the place of actual skill.

“The Secret Garden,” by Frances Hodgson Burnett (Stokes); “Mother Carey’s Chickens,” by Kate Douglas Wiggin (Houghton-Mifflin), and “The Story Girl,” by L. M. Montgomery (Page) , are three very good books to give at Christmas to the young ladies of your Bible class. Each steers clear of the physiological problems of a corrupt civilization; each deals chiefly with jolly children, and each depicts the world in the agreeable but unusual process of growing better. Of the three, the most delicate and artistic perhaps is Mrs. Burnett’s—a tale of childhood which falls between “A Little Princess” and “Little Lord Fauntleroy”—one which passes over into unreality more than once but always in reality’s guise. Mrs. Burnett manages that sort of business with considerable skill; she can tell a pretty story as few other fictioneers of our day can tell it. The other two books also show no little craftsmanship. In brief, a trio not to be despised, particularly with Christmas approaching and the search beginning for suitable gifts for those sweet girls who are too old for the Elsie books and yet not old enough for “Trilby.” At the opposite pole is “Other Laws,” by John Parkinson (Lane), a sad, sad English tale in the “Dodo” manner, with a hero who goes out to Africa and is reported dead and a heroine who thereupon projects herself into the arms of a needy journalist. A hiatus. Now comes the hero back, alive and dismayed. But not for long. Those that love hath joined together, let no mere husband put asunder! She places her hands “on either of his cheeks,” and slowly drawing her face toward him, kisses him softly on the lips. “With you, dear,” she says. “Anywhere, anything, with you!” Mr. Parkinson writes suavely and entertainingly, but I am unable to report that he has anything to say.

“A Prairie Courtship” (Stokes) is another of Harold Bindloss’s workmanlike tales of the Canadian Northwest. Mr. Bindloss writes too many of them to linger long over any one of them, and the consequence is that all are more remarkable for their fluency than for their actual substance, but if you like a conventional romance, with a gipsy hero who finds love the answer to all the world riddles and a brave little heroine who dares life and the wilderness alone, then you will not lament the five shillings you pay for this one. “A Texas Ranger,” by William MacLeod Raine (Dillingham), is a rip-snorting yarn of the wild, wild Southwest, with enough hold-ups and other desperate encounters in it to make a moving picture film one thousand two hundred feet long. “Don Sagasto’s Daughter,” by Paul H. Blades (Badger), is a dull but painstaking story of Southern California in the days before the Yankee invasion, with intimate glimpses of the ancient Spanish lords of the soil. “A Knight or the Golden Circle,” by U. S. Lesh (Badger), is a chronicle of Confederate plotting in Indiana in the closing days of the Civil War. Earnest, but far from enthralling.

Blithe writing is the grace that makes “Secretary of Frivolous Affairs,” by May Futrelle (Bobbs-Merrill), stand out from the dull desert of current fiction. The story that Mrs. Futrelle has to tell is almost as much old as new. We scarred and maimed novel readers know the social secretary; we know the sturdy young son-of-the-house who falls in love with her; we know the talcumed and bedizened kidnaper, and we know the bogus French count—but here we have those venerable comedians in new gauds and at new tricks and with the October wine of a second youth in their veins. Mrs. Futrelle has a sense of humor, and she has, too, the dramatic sense. Modest in plan and purpose her story may be, but in execution it shows many a lively virtue. The same excellences mark “Average Jones,” by Samuel Hopkins Adams (Bobbs-Merrill), a sequence of ten detective stories. Jones (who labors under the depressing given names of Adrian Van Reypen Egerton) is a sleuth of the Holmes school, logical and scientific, and so his feats do not startle the seasoned connoisseur of such doings, but Mr. Adams describes them so well that there is no resisting them. Altogether, a book which rises much above its class.

A few more novels and we are done with them. “To Love and to Cherish,” by Eliza Calvert Hall (Little Brown), introduces us to a Kentucky politician who declines the governorship because he fears that his simple mountain wife will be cruelly embarrassed by the elaborate ceremonial of the Blue Grass court. The author has been praised by Colonel Roosevelt. “ Mary, “ by Winifred Graham (Kennerley), has a heroine whose goodness and loveliness suggest to many simple folk that she is the Mother of Christ come back to earth again—a somewhat difficult story to manage with due decorum, and one which Miss Graham does not help by making Mary Aquila a disputative theologian. “The Rose Door,” by Estelle Baker (Kerr), is an extremely depressing study of prostitution in San Francisco. “Phyllis in Middlewych,” by Margaret Westrup (Lane), is a series of chapters from the life and adventures of Phyllis Cartwright, a ten-year-old in an English village, with sundry and amusing sidelights upon certain older folk. Tempo: Allegretto. “The Yellow Letter,” by William Johnston (Bobbs-Merrill), is a tale of mystery. “Rose of Old Harpeth, “ by Maria Thompson Daviess (Bobbs-Merrill), is a sentimental pastoral. “Miss Billy,” by Eleanor H. Porter (Page), is the gay story of a country girl who elects herself ward of three Boston bachelors—with the inevitable finale by MM. Mendelssohn and Wagner.

Forty-two years ago a longing to eat engaged John Muir and there was no responsive jingle of legal tender in his pantaloons, so he fell gladly upon the proposal of one Mr. Delaney, a California sheepowner, that he accompany a flock of Delaney sheep to the upland pastures of the Sierra, not to watch the sheep but to watch the shepherd. A romantic hike through deep forests, over foaming mountain streams and up a score of flowery valleys—and now, after a lifetime, comes the record of it, in “My First Summer in the Sierra,” (Houghton-Mifflin), a book simply and charmingly written, and one full of the glow of outdoors. Mr. Muir was thirty-one years old at that time, and his chief journeys, including that which put the Muir Glacier upon the map of Alaska, were still ahead of him. Today, at seventy-three, he is a noble survivor of an earlier and more spacious day. You will like his story. Not a bird or tree or flower escaped his eager eye; but it is not a dull catalogue that he now offers, but rather the lively journal of a happy, springtime adventure.

The appellation of “Passion Lyrics,” which Maurine Hathaway, “the poetess of the pines,” bestows upon her new collection of strophes (Parker), gives promise of an agreeable devilishness within, but what one actually finds there is the harmless doggerel of a high-school girl. More honestly diabolical is Henry Percival Spencer, whose highly alkaline ballads, songs and epigrams bear the label of “A Rape or Hallow e’en” (Badger). A good book to send (anonymously) to your pastor, or to some other poor fellow whose healthy human appetite for impropriety cannot be satisfied publicly without scandal. There are some trivial things among the “Songs” of Cy Warman (Avery), but there are also a number of graceful and melodious compositions in the little book—enough, indeed, to give good excuse for printing it. A more rigid edit ing, preferably by some cold-blooded stranger, would have improved “Lights and Shadows,” by Hayden Sands (De Mille). Some of these songs have considerable beauty, but much inept stuff, apparently from the author’s nonage, crowds upon them, and so the average of quality falls. Yet that average is still high enough to insure Mr. Sands a respectful hearing. The trouble with Louis How, whose “Lyrics and Songs” (Sherman-French) comes next, is that he is careless of rhythm. Over and over again a harsh, staccato line breaks the back of what would be otherwise a pretty little song. Say that suavity is in “The Queen of Orplede,” by Charles Wharton Stork (Lippincott), and you have said all. Mr. Stork writes excellent verse, but its emotions are seldom warm enough to give it the character of true poetry. “Mother’s Love Songs,” by Elizabeth Toldridge (Badger), suffers from monotony of theme, for every song celebrates a daughter’s love for her mother, but here and there a fine line keeps one reading on. The “Songs” of Florence Isabel Chauncey, the “Poems” of Lillie Rosalie Ripley, the “Rhymes of the City of Roses” of T. B. Shartle, the “Egyptian Melodies” of Alfred J. Hough and the “Osirus” of Joseph J. Coughlin (all Badger) are dull, dismal and amateurish. The “Lyrics from Lotus Lands” of Florence Land May and the “Poems” of C. E. d’Arnoux (both Badger) are frankly atrocious. Which brings us, bloody but unbowed, to the end of the poets and their poetizing.

(Source: Hathitrust.org, https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=njp.32101076380292;view=1up;seq=552)