A Road Map of the New Books

H.L. Mencken

The Smart Set/January, 1909

WE will begin with what the architects of rituals call a responsive service, to wit:

Q.—What is a novel?

A.—A novel is an imaginative, artistic and undialectic composition in prose, not less than 20,000 nor more than 500,000 words in length, and divided into chapters, sections, books or other symmetrical parts, in which certain interesting, significant and probable (though fictitious) human transactions are described both in cause and effect, with particular reference to the influence exerted upon the ideals, opinions, morals, temperament and overtacts of some specified person or persons by the laws, institutions, superstitions, traditions and customs of such portions of the human race and the natural phenomena of such portions of the earth as may come under his, her or their observation or cognizance, and by the ideals, opinions, morals, temperament and overt acts of such person or persons as may come into contact, either momentarily or for longer periods, with him, her or them, either by actual, social or business intercourse, or through the medium of books, newspapers, the church, the theater or some other person or persons.

This definition represents the toil of several days and makes severe demands upon both eye and attention, but it is well worth the time spent upon it and the effort necessary to assimilate it, for it is entirely without loophole, blowhole or other blemish. It describes, with scientific accuracy, every real novel ever written, and by the same token, it bars out every last near-novel, pseudo-novel and quasi-novel, however colorable, and every romance, rhapsody, epic, saga, stuffed short story, tract and best-seller known to bibliographers.

This definition, in truth, has a quarrel with the great bulk of current fiction. One and all, the books that pour from the presses, in their bright gauds of gilt and red, are labeled novels, but often their labels mislead sadly.

Now and then, however, there appears upon the bookstalls a new book which meets upon fair ground those great books of other years which set the bounds of fiction’s symphonic form— a new book which tells, with insight, imagination and conviction, the story of some one man’s struggle with his fate—which shows us, like a vast fever chart, the ebb and flow of his ideas and ideals, and the multitude of forces shaping them—which gives us, in brief, a veritable, moving chronicle of a human being driven, tortured and fashioned by the blood within him and the world without—a chronicle with a beginning, a middle and an end, and some reasonable theory of existence over all. Such a book is “The Pit”—a true novel. And such a book is Miss Mary Johnston’s new novel, “Lewis Rand” (Houghton-Mifflin, $1.50).

“Lewis Rand,” it must be admitted at the start, is far from flawless. In form, for example, it is immeasurably below “Henry Esmond”; in its painting in of color and character it is inferior to “Huckleberry Finn”—the greatest work of fiction yet produced by an American; and in its analysis of incident and motive it is not to be compared to “Lord Jim.” But while it thus falls short of the first rank, it is unquestionably at the top of the second rank. There is sincerity in every line, and there is an epic sweep and breadth to it. Planned lavishly and written with infinite pains, it is not only a good story of a strong man’s losing battle with Fate, but an illuminating study of an epoch of and a conflict of civilizations.

The man we see is a poor white of the Virginia of Jefferson’s day. Born to toil, he is rowelled, from early youth, by high ambitions, for mingling with his father’s plodding burgher blood there is a more fiery strain from his mother. A chance meeting with the Sage of Monticello gives shape to his yearnings and he enters upon the study of the law. In Virginia a lawyer is, ipso facto, a politician, and Lewis Rand is apt at both trades. From the very start, he is a young man of obvious promise, and as the years drift past this promise is realized. That rising of the yeoman against the baron which has Jefferson for its philosopher, finds in Rand, in so far as Virginia is concerned, its prophet and hero. With his horde behind him, he triumphs over the old ruling caste with ease and the State is at his feet.

But in all this delirium of success Rand finds disquiet. He is the master, true enough, at the polls, and if he gives the word he may be Governor of Virginia and the peer of princes, but in the face of all that worldly glory is he the equal, after all, of his foes? He has carried the war into the enemy’s country by making a daughter of the Churchills his wife, but isn’t it a fact that the Churchills and the Rands are still of different castes, as unlike as the Roman and the Hun? The thought drives Rand into bitter rage and fills his mind with plans for vast, fantastic revenges and conquests.

It is at this time that Aaron Burr—sleek, confident and plausible—crosses his path. Burr dreams of an empire beyond the Mississippi, and Rand sees in it his opportunity. He will cast in his lot with the dreamer and then trample the dreamer down. Jacqueline Rand, of the Churchill clan, will become an empress! He, Rand, disdaining acceptance as a mere equal, will lift the Churchills up! Governor of Virginia? Jefferson’s heir? Pooh!

But then Fate steps in, with her grim smile. Burr is arrested, the empire vanishes, and Rand faces the cold, accusing eye of Jefferson. It is only by his betrayed patron’s generosity, indeed, that he escapes a trial for treason. Even as it is, the story of his gigantic plot reaches the ears of one of his foes—and that man is Ludwell Cary, most serene of the baronial caste and most noble of vanquished rivals in love. It is not because Cary has loved Jacqueline that Rand hates him, for Jacqueline’s love and loyalty are perfect, but because in him is visualized the supremely desirable and the eternally unattainable. One day, riding along a lonely road Rand and Cary meet. Next morning Cary is found dead—and as the story closes we see Rand preparing to enter the felon’s dock to answer the charge of murder.

A very clever woman of my acquaintance, reading this sound and moving novel, objected to Rand’s sudden slaying of Cary without immediate provocation as a mere trick of the theater. But to me it seems anything but that. It is, indeed, one of the surest touches in the book. From the start the murder is as inevitable as Hamlet’s slaying of the king, and one glimpses its gathering shadow in scene after scene. Rand’s fight, it is ever plain, is not for kingship over the rabble, but for acceptance by his vanquished foes. All his vast energies and talents are shaped to that end, and when, after his narrow escape from disgrace, it slowly dawns upon him that the barrier before him is not an artificial thing, to be torn down at will, but a wall impenetrable and everlasting, his rage becomes ungovernable. In its very breaking of all restraint, indeed, appears proof that the barrier is real—that, after all, the difference between caste and caste is fixed, not by man himself, but by Providence. A Cary, in all ages, has his passions in hand, even when they are most fiery; but a Rand, unschooled by generations of formula and inhibition, is their slave. And so Lewis Rand kills Ludwell Cary—because he can’t help it.

In detail, “Lewis Rand” is of uneven texture. Here and there the story lumbers, and now and again it runs thin, but for the greater part Miss Johnston’s technique suffices for her plan. She is obviously writing, not to meet the current fashion, but to please herself—and it is just such writing that makes the best of reading. With a stage sparsely peopled, she has opportunity to give her characters rotundity, and out of it grows reality. One may quarrel, at first blush, with Jacqueline’s goodness, but if one recalls the ideals of feminine duty which obtained in the sub-Potomac palatinates of her day, she grows in plausibility. So, too, the Carys and the Churchills. The century-long battle has been won by the Rands and the old aristocracy is no more, but the conflict was very real while it lasted, and in Miss Johnston’s understanding of-its savagery and significance lies the chief value of her novel. The siege of caste by caste is not merely a part of the story’s machinery. On the contrary, the story itself is but a fable visualizing the siege, just as in “Nostromo” one’s mind is made to dwell, not upon the adventures of Nostromo himself, but upon that maddening world-riddle—that unanswerable question as to the meaning of life—which lies beneath them.

Once upon a time a French critic named Georges Polti wrote a book entitled “Les Trente-six Situations Dramatiques” in which he essayed to prove that there were but thirty-six possible dramatic situations. A multitude of other critics straightway fell upon this Polti and wrote him down an ass, which has been his rank and appellation ever since. But even had his fellows sprung not so enthusiastically to his walloping, the world would have found proof of his fatuity, after many years in a zymotic romance called “Lila Seri,” by William Lee Howard (Badger, $1.50), for in this book there is a dramatic situation entirely new to fiction. Search the plays, novels, stuffed short stories, epics, rhapsodies, parables and kammererzaehlungen of all times and all tongues—and you will never find its like.

The hero in this startling and unprecedented story is a young American who cherishes a virtuous passion for the daughter of a millionaire. The millionaire charters a yacht for a cruise in the South Pacific and takes daughter and lover with him. As diligent students of fiction are well aware, all yachts that sail the South Pacific are eventually wrecked upon desert isles, and this one, of course, is no exception. An offshore earthquake gobbles it and every soul goes to the sharks save the daughter, her sister and her lover.

Then begins a voyage in a small boat, with the lover as navigator and protector. He is master of all conceivable storms, even in those sardonic seas, and the cannibals of the vicinage alarm him not, but day and night he is torn by a grisly fear that some roving pirate, white, yellow or brown, will swoop down upon him and bear away his two fair charges. Unluckily, his fear is not without ground, for two such filthy Don Juans soon bob up, the one being a Portugee and the other a Chinaman.

Well, it’s an exciting story, and more than once the poor girls seem to be on the brink of Gehenna, but after a while salvation comes in sight, for the fair queen of a beauteous isle takes the whole party under her wing. This queen has been to Europe and has added the charm of refined conversation to the lure of her good looks. She is, indeed, a Perfect Lady in every respect save one—and out of that exception grows the unprecedented situation aforesaid. The lover appears before her—and an amber haze, alive with red comets, rises before her eyes. He is her Ideal Man, and being a queen, she is frank about it. “Enter my polyandrous harem,” she says in effect, “or I’ll heave your fiancee to the Chinaman!”

Imagine the poor devil’s agony! On the one hand a love unspeakable calls him; on the other stands his virtue! He must immolate himself upon the altar of felonious passion—or see his best girl dragged to the pyre! What a situation for the stage! What a chance for some handsome young leading man in creased trousers and patent leather shoes! Before these lines are in type, I have no doubt, the play “will be ordered by some alert Frohman. Get busy, Fitch! Go to it, Rose! Up, the Rev. Thomas Dixon, and at ’em!

No; I am not going to tell you how the hero solves his ghastly problem. You must read the book yourself. It is unparalleled, incomparable, magnificent, unique—a literary nonesuch. A hundred delicious touches give it charm. At one place the hero swims ashore and witnesses a fearful dance upon a cannibal island. When he comes back to his boat he is silent, and—“the girls were too well-bred to ask many questions.” There is carnage Gargantuan and indescribable. “The death club’s final song was that of gushing blood. Then followed a jelly-like gurgling. . . .Not a groan came from the falling pirate. . . . His body gurgled (Gott im Himmel!) as it rolled. . . .”

A large number of incidental paragraphs, explaining the doings of the villains on pathological grounds, give excuse for the suspicion that the author may be identical with the Dr. Med. William Lee Howard, whose marvelous articles occasionally adorn the popular magazines. Who else is so intimate with the secrets of the human soul? Who else could discourse so fluently of that “periodic psychical epilepsy” which makes the Mad Swede use one pirate as a club to pulverize the gurgling carcasses of the others?

In “The Immortal Moment,” by May Sinclair (Doubleday-Page, $1.50) we encounter anew our old friend, the lady whose past rises up to blast her first chaste love. This lady swam into our ken on February 2, 1852, as Marguerite Gautier and since then she has appeared in a thousand incarnations— as Mrs. Dane, as Iris, as Paula Tanqueray, and as many and many a drama by Adaptor out of Augier and Dumas fils. In itself, of course, this antiquity is no demerit, for Juliet Capulet is even older, but when a writer of fiction trots out the familiar figure once more we are at least privileged to expect that some new light be shed upon her sufferings. This new light does not appear in Miss Sinclair’s book, for she takes her Mrs. Tanqueray—the name being changed to Mrs. Kitty Tailleur—a quite conventional round.

At the start, Kitty appears heart whole and fancy free—a woman eminent in her profession and not a little soothed by the rewards of her eminence. Then appears her man of fate and the two love. What is she to do? Tell her lover of her past and so risk losing him at once; or marry him without telling and so risk losing him later on, when he finds out for himself? She decides to tell him at once—and he politely makes his adieux. And then what? Why, suicide, to be sure! “We found her—down there. She’s killed. She—she fell from the cliff.”

Miss Sinclair, of course, is no amateur, and in consequence she makes her story interesting, even though it is an old story and she has little novelty to put into it. Her management of the encounters between Kitty and the man in the case is very skilful, and she puts a good deal of vitality into the subsidiary characters. One of these is Kitty’s protector—a man of genuine feeling and sound philosophy. But even when this engaging person announces his most interesting syllogisms, one cannot quite put down, for all this surface freshness, a haunting memory of Cayley Drummle.

Mrs. George Cornwallis-West voices an apt criticism of her own book, “The Reminiscences of Lady Randolph Churchill” (Century Co., $3.50 net). when she says, in a prefatory note: “There may be some to whom these reminiscences will be interesting chiefly in virtue of what is left unsaid.” What she says is interesting enough, but one puts down the heavy, portentous looking volume at the end with a feeling that the better half of the story remains to be told.

True enough, it would be out of all reason to expect Mrs. Cornwallis-West to reveal state secrets in her book. She is still far from elderly, and has more than a few years ahead of her, and during these years it will be her fate, no doubt, to meet at dinner and masquerade a good many of the royal and noble folk she here discusses. It is a safe bet that she could write a volume about one eminent monarch that would sell better than a best-seller, but all she ventures in the present work is the modest—and truthful—statement that he is a most affable gentleman. Such are the burdens laid upon those who attend at courts.

Pepys- and Hohenlohe-like, they must put off the explosion of their bombs until after death has made them deaf to the clatter.

In Robert Hichens’s new book, “A Spirit in Prison” (Harper’s, $1.50), the stage setting is of rather more importance than the characters. Given a green and yellow landscape, with the good red sun beating down and the blue sky overhead, and Mr. Hichens is at home. He has, indeed, some measure of that rare genius for description which made the late George W. Steevens, the greatest newspaper reporter that ever lived. And in this tale his chances are many, for the gorgeous bay of Naples is the principal scene.

As for the story itself, it is not of great significance. Hero and heroine are both well past the day of cyclonic passion, and the latter, for a long, long while, gets all of the emotional stimulation she needs out of her lingering, minore love for her dead husband. When his unworthiness is revealed to her she is crushed, but in the end a hint of consolation relieves the gloom. The passages between this melancholy lady’s young daughter and a sprightly Neapolitan merman leave the impression that, despite the 662 pages of “A Spirit in Prison,” Mr. Hichens has a great deal more to tell. No doubt we shall have the sequel next year.

As in all English novels which deal with foreign parts, there are innumerable exotic phrases in “A Spirit in Prison.” The ordinary table talk of the characters is done into the vulgate for us, but now and then, particularly when they grow excited or burst into song, the original Italian is given. Mr. Hichens, it must be said to his credit, ameliorates his offense by confining his quotations to Italian phrases which most of us will be able to decipher unaided. WhenVere cries “Stupido!” for example, it needs no master of the Romance languages to guess that she is saying “Stupid!” and when, at the end, Zuffino voices a gentle “Buona notte e buon riposo,” it is apparent, even to the meanest understanding, that he is wishing Hermione a pleasant evening and peaceful dreams. This device is to be commended to all cosmopolitan novelists. It is simple and humane, and it makes unnecessary the plan resorted to by Mrs. Cornwallis-West in her “Reminiscences,” wherein there is printed, as an appendix, a group of translations of the French letters in the text.

Mrs. Edith Wharton’s new volume of short stories, “The Hermit and the Wild Woman” (Scribner’s, $1.50), is one of those genteel and well-made books which seem to presuppose a high degree of culture and no little personal fastidiousness in the reader. I have read Conrad and Kipling on the deck of a smelly tramp steamer, with my attire confined to a simple suit of pajamas, and somehow, the time, the place and the garb seemed in no wise indecent; but after I had passed the first story in Mrs. Wharton’s book, I began to long for a velvet smoking jacket and a genuine Havana substitute for my corncob pipe. That is to say, the main concern of this charming and excellent writer is with the doings and meditations of ultra-civilized folks. The mental processes of an artist losing faith in his work, of a statesman tortured by an indiscreet wife, of a social climber reaching higher and higher— these are the problems in psychology that engage her. Her Hermit and her Wild Woman, true enough, are savages, but after all, they are mere figures of speech, and one feels that she means them to typify far more complex persons. In all the other stories we are frankly above the level of those who sweat and swear. It is not especially fashionable persons that she draws, for she knows well enough that fashionable persons often have elemental minds. A fairly accurate notion of her field may be derived from the thought that her average hero would suffer acutely on hearing a ragged entrance of the wood wind, or on suddenly encountering, by some mischance, a portrait in crayon. Of such are the people of her stories, and it is needless to say that she pictures them with a sure and artistic hand.

Leonidas Andreiyeff, the Russian, in “Silence” (Brown Bros., 50 cents) takes us into an entirely different world. Here we have an elemental yearning eating into the soul of an elemental man. Father Ignatius, the priest, wrestles with a staggering problem. It fills his whole mind, and a wild human longing to talk about it—to discuss it, pro and con, hour after hour, day by day—with someone who can understand it, see into it, appreciate its vastness, seizes him. But there is no such person. The brutish peasants ’round about him would merely stand agape. Of the two who might have shouldered some share of his burden one is dead and the other dying. And so Father Ignatius passes out of the story, mute, groping and in agony.

This Andreiyeff, or whatever his name may be—I have seen it spelled in a dozen different ways—is a man who knows the mind of man, and who knows too, how to write.

Comparatively few of his stories have been done into civilized tongues, but these few show a vast and assertive originality. There is something of Poe’s bizarrerie in them and a great deal more literary skill than Poe ever had. In the American’s writings one is ever conscious of an effort to impress the plain people with sounding rhetoric and the mere hullabaloo of words; but in Andreiyeff’s stories there is apparent only an endeavor to tell a tale—not flamboyantly, but with bitter economy.

Conan Doyle suggests Poe, too, but even more faintly. In his new book “Round the Fire Stories” (McClure, $1.50), there are seventeen tales of the marvelous and grotesque. Their personages are entirely incredible, and they are written with little more art than a court report, but the plots are wonders of ingenuity, and so the tales are unmistakably entertaining. One shudders and gasps—and reads on and on and on.

The chief charm of H. G. Wells’s new book, “The War in the Air” (Macmillan, $1.50), does not lie in the vivid story of the clash of airships, the destruction of New York and London and the march of the Purple Death from Tibet over the world, but in the picture of civilization in ruins which follows after. The last and greatest of wars has set back the clock of time ten thousand years. The few men that survive become simple shepherds, who pasture their scant flocks in Hyde Park and think only of their belly-need. It is a vast canvas upon which Mr. Wells works, and the picture that he draws is staggering.

Anthony Hope Hawkins tells a novel story in “The Great Miss Driver” (McClure, $1.50), and he tells it with skill, but there is little probability that it will change the label he bears in the Hall of Fame. Mr. Hawkins, it is apparent, aspires to a place more exalted than that commonly accorded the writer of mere romance. His intent, in a word, seems to be to prove he can do better and more serious things than “The Prisoner of Zenda.” In this ambition there is a good deal of folly. The stories of the Zenda group were the best of their kind since Dumas, but those in Mr. Hawkins’s later manner have no such preeminence.

One might name at least a dozen English novelists whose studies of contemporary English manners are far more interesting.

Dr. S. Weir Mitchell’s new romance, “The Red City” (Century Co., $1.50), deals, like “Lewis Rand,” with the black days which saw the transformation of the loose American federation into a true republic. The time is the second administration of Washington, and the clash of hostile parties forms the basis of the action. The Vicomte de Courval, a fugitive from blazing France, and the fair Quakeress he wins and weds in turbulent Philadelphia give the touch of sentiment. “The Red City” introduces us anew to Hugh Wynne, and we see again his friends and hear again their problems. There is nothing of the howl and gallop of conventional romance in this tale. Its tempo is ever larghetto, and one acquires, somehow, the notion that Dr. Mitchell’s discovery of the therapeutic value of inactivity has made its mark upon the fiction he produces between consultations.

The Long Arm of Mannister—
by E. Phillips Oppenheim. (Little-Brown, $1.50)
A workmanlike tale of love and vengeance, by a hardworking and reliable union novelist.

The Ladies’ Pageant—
by E. V. Lucas. (Macmillan, $1.50)
A collection of sweet and bitter words about women, in prose and rhyme, chiefly from the more sentimental bards. Not a word from Schopenhauer’s immortal essay.

The Enchanted Hat—
by Harold McGrath. (Bobbs-Merrill, $1.50)
Four amusing short stories, disguised as a novel.

by “Tecumtha.” (Universal Pub. Co.)
A drama in five acts. Back to the sewing circle, Tecumtha! The literary art is not for thee.

My Auto Book—
by Walter Pulitzer. (Outing Pub. Co., $1)
A log-book for motorists, with blank spaces for making records of runs. On the odd pages are a hundred or more auto wheezes by Mr. Pulitzer and as many excellent pictures by Hy. S. Watson.

The Better Treasure—
by Mary Raymond Shipman Andrews. (Bobbs-Merrill, $1.25)
An old-fashioned Christmas story, with a hero saved from anarchy and crime by the family clergyman.

The Letters of Jennie Allen—by Grace Musgrove. (Small-Maynard, $1.50)
Mild and elemental humor, depending largely for its charm upon misspelled words. Now and then a gleam of Harumese philosophy.

Friendship Village—
by Zona Gale. (Macmillan, $1.50)
Charming sketches of character types in an American village, full of insight and humor.

The Economic Functions of Vice—
by John McElroy. (National Tribune, $1)
A sound contribution to philosophy. Who is McElroy?

John Jasper—
by W. E. Hatcher, LL.D. (Revell, $1)
An account of the author of “De Sun Do Move.” Jasper was the greatest American theologian of his time, and had he lived 1,600 years earlier would have eclipsed Origen.

The Courage of Captain Plum—
by James Oliver Curwood. (Bobbs-Merrill, $1.50)
A tale of the queer Mormon kingdom on Beaver Island. Not a work of genius, but well out of the common stream of best-sellers.

Joan of Garioch—
by Albert Kinross. (Macmillan, $1. 50)
A book of thrills, with the scenes lain in red-running Russia. The hero follows the elusive heroine through a thousand perils. Good of its sort.

A Prisoner of the Sea—
by Chauncey C. Hotchkiss. (McBride, $ 1.50)
A tale of love, mystery, crime and peril by land and sea, obviously based upon an international robbery plot which recently engaged the newspapers.

by Beatrice Harraden. (Stokes, $1.50)
A somewhat muddled story, evidently full of purpose. Admirers of Miss Harraden’s peculiar genius will no doubt enjoy it.

Colonel Greatheart— by H. C. Bailey. (Bobbs-Merrill, $1.50) A Cromwellian romance by a writer palpably alive to the merits of “ Henry Esmond.” Clean, well told and not too improbable.
(Source: Hathitrust.org, http://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?view=image;size=100;id=njp.32101076426194;page=root;seq=172;num=160)