Again the Busy Fictioneers

H.L. Mencken

The Smart Set/January, 1913

H. G. WELLS, the Englishman, had as firm a grip upon character and situation as Theodore Dreiser, the American; and if Theodore Dreiser, the American, had half the humor and a third of the feeling for phrase and climax of H. G. Wells, the Englishman—well, if any such exchange or compromise of talents were possible, or better still, if one of the two men could monopolize the talents of both, then we should have a very excellent novelist indeed.

As it is, we must thank the devil and his angels for what we have got. Dreiser may move along at times with the slowness and ineptness of a hippopotamus, bogged in morasses of parts of speech, stumbling over his own feet, but, after all, he gets somewhere, he achieves something; he produces, in the end, a genuine novel, which means a genuine description and interpretation of life as human beings are living it in the world. And Wells, for all his flightiness, his lingering extravagances and his occasional debauch of writing for mere writing’s sake, is still a first rate journeyman fictioneer, with more to say in one volume than Arnold Bennett has to say in four.

In brief, both men rise superior to their defects, despite the fact that those defects are numerous and insistent. Say what you will against Dreiser, you must always admit at last that no other living American has done anything better, taking it by and large, than “Sister Carrie” ; and say what you will against Wells, you must always come to the confession that such things as “Tono-Bungay,” “Ann Veronica” and “The New Machiavelli” do not belong to the common run of fiction, with its puny amours, its rubber stamp rhetoric and its brummagem philosophy, but to a higher and rarer class of books, to which all too few contributions are made in these facile and platitudinous days.

If you ask me whether I think Dreiser is a better novelist than Howells, I answer you discreetly that Dreiser never giggles, and so leave you to work it out for yourself. And if you ask me if Wells is better than Hardy or George Moore or Conrad or Henry James, I make answer that Hardy is too ancient a man to be brought into such disputations, and that Moore and Conrad are no more Englishmen than Gabrielle D’Annunzio, and that Henry James, though undoubtedly as English as Trafalgar Square, if choice counts for more than birth, has not written in the actual tongue of England since the time of the Homestead riots. Thus I avoid vain comparisons and rob you of your show. But meanwhile I advise you earnestly to read both Wells and Dreiser, and in particular to read the books that they will write and print hereafter. Whatever they are today, it is ten to one that they will be vastly better tomorrow, and upon that wager I stake my hide, my millions and my sacred honor.

So we come to “ Marriage,” Wells’s latest (Duffield), and there we find him both at his best and at his worst. Nothing he has ever done is more vivid and searching than his account of the meeting and marriage of Marjorie Pope and young Dr. Richard Godwin Trafford, with the attendant acts of sacrifice, perfidy and chicane; nor has he ever drawn more lively figures than these two, the one a red-haired college girl of defective morals, the other a molecular physicist with the scientific passion of a Darwin, the amorous romanticism of an American business man and the good looks of a London actor-manager. Marjorie is engaged to Mr. Magnet, a rich and eminent humorist, at the time Trafford crosses her path (or rather falls into her path, for he tumbles into her father’s garden from an aeroplane), but it is instantly apparent that Magnet is done for. Three or four days later Trafford and Marjorie meet in the Pope garden by moonlight, and there tumble into each other’s arms with glad hearts and not the slightest sense of either treason to Magnet or offense to Mrs. Grundy. Papa Pope finds them in a sort of swoon of joy, and gives Trafford a belt over the head. Three months later they elope.

So far, so good. Not only Marjorie and Trafford themselves, but also the minor characters of the tale are sketched in with sure and eloquent strokes—Magnet, the great humorist, with his feeble facetiousness and his Philistine pruderies; Papa Pope, the fireside bully, with his vapid rages, his numskull adventures in the stock market and his firm faith that the world is going to the devil; Mamma Pope, his weak and battered mate; the patient, believing mother of Trafford; the lesser Popes; Solomonson, the Jew; Aunt Plessington, the merciless altruist; Uncle Hubert, her husband, secretary and valet. All of those folks have the blood of life in them. Old Pope, true enough, comes close to the conventional heavy father more than once, but always, at the last moment, he is given a fillip which makes him alive again. And so with Aunt Plessington. Now and then she seems to be stiffening into a dummy of farce, but the author never fails to come to her aid in time.

What is more, a colorful and realistic background is provided for the show. Nothing, indeed, could be more incisive and amusing than Wells’s description of that great welter of movements and reforms in which such persons as Aunt Plessington waste their lives. He knows the species, I dare say, at first hand, and he is acutely conscious of in its reasoning, of every admixture of social and political poppycock, of every pathetic grotesquerie behind its unquestionable earnestness. Again, he gives us magnificent writing when he sets out to contrast the muddled thinking of the average Englishman, and particularly of the average English politician, with the clear, biting thinking of such a man as Trafford. I wish I could quote from his discussion of these differences, but my space is too short. All I may do is to call your attention to the fact that in this department, wherein nine novelists out of ten fail wholly, Wells does his very best work. His characters, in brief, are not mere beings in vacuo, like the bisque gods and goddesses of the best sellers, but creatures who take color and substance from a definite and elaborately worked-out environment, and respond to every change in it, and project their personalities into it, and so have rank as indubitable mammals.

But the story that is thus begun so adroitly and carried on with such resource and skill goes to pieces, alas, before it ends. The first few years of the Traffords’ marriage remain credible enough. Trafford, the honeymoon behind him, throws himself whole-heartedly into his work, and Marjorie essays housekeeping and motherhood upon his modest stipend. But a streak of recklessness is in her, and it soon shows itself. A beautiful present appeals to her with ten times the vigor of a secure future. She outruns her allowance, debts pile up, Trafford is forced into degrading drudgery to make both ends meet. Bit by bit the situation grows worse. Trafford’s one hope of honorable escape is by way of sustained and brilliant work, with an F. R. S. and a well-paid professorship following after; but it is just this sustained and brilliant work that becomes more and more difficult, and finally downright impossible. Doubts and qualms overtake him; perhaps he is asking too much of a young and much alive girl. What right has he to condemn her to the narrowness and stinting of a pundit’s life? In the end—who knows?—he may fail, after all, and then their youth will be gone, and every fallacy their chance of happiness with it. Of a sudden he makes up his mind. He has invented a method of producing rubber artificially, and Solomonson, the Jew, is badgering him unmercifully to turn it into millions. He yields to Solomonson—and to Marjorie. In five years he is a rich and idle man, and Marjorie is one of the rising hostesses of London, up to her eyes in movements and reforms, the envy of Aunt Plessington, the center of a brilliant and ever widening circle.

But all this, alackaday, is tragedy to Trafford, and tragedy, too, to Mr. Wells’s novel. Trafford grows moody, unrestful, occupationless. The impulse to track down facts is still within him; he yearns for his old, bare laboratory, his microscopes and test tubes, the solitary labor of the savant. But a trial shows him that he has lost form, no doubt beyond remedy. Five years in the world have spoiled him for science. What to do? He decides to devote himself to some great work for his fellow men, preferably some obscure and thankless work. But what? He must go somewhere and think it over, somewhere far from London. Labrador suggests itself vaguely; he has been struck by some traveler’s tale of its great spaces and its loneliness. His first plan, of course, is to go alone; one of his chief objects, indeed, is to get away from Marjorie. But she elects herself his companion and nurse and they sail together. Far in the wilderness they make their camp, preparing for the long arctic winter. And there, fighting outrageous nature together, sitting around their campfire, smoking the same pipe, they—

But I leave the rest to your curiosity, for it is here that “Marriage,” as it were, loses its mainsail and begins to stagger in the gale. The reality of the thing vanishes; the typical becomes the unique and incredible; a golden fog of fantasy settles down. I am not saying that these scenes are not well done; all I am saying is that they do not belong to the scenes that have gone before. Starting out to depict the stresses and storms of a modem marriage, under the complex but none the less orderly and understandable conditions of civilization, Wells proceeds gaily to convert it into marriage of the Stone Age. And so, as I have said, his book goes to pieces. When Trafford makes his million there are the first hints of disaster; when he and Marjorie sail from Liverpool the wreck is complete. Wells, I dare say, will get over that weakness for the bizarre and extravagant in the course of time, but so far he has not been able to shake it off. The shadow of “The War of the Worlds” and “ The First Men in the Moon” hangs over all the novels of his later and better manner.

You remember, no doubt, the airship flight in “Tono-Bungay,” almost a commonplace today, but still wholly fantastic then. Such habits, however, wear themselves out. On some happy tomorrow Wells will forget at last that he was once the English Jules Verne. When that day comes I haven’t the slightest doubt whatever that he will write a novel that will give him a secure place among the greater English novelists of the twentieth century. No man writing today understands the spirit of that century better, and no man is a more accomplished master of written speech.

The Dreiser novel is “The Financier” (Harper), and like “Marriage” it is full of the characteristic faults of the author. The character of Frank Cowperwood, the financier, is not revealed by brilliant flashes, but by the slow and laborious accumulation of detail. What is more, the background is made visible and comprehensible in the same onerous and indefatigable manner. When Cowperwood builds and furnishes a house, the chief rooms in it are described with such care that scarcely a chair is overlooked. And when Cowperwood, mixing politics and finance, comes a sad cropper, and is haled into the law courts to answer for his crimes, we get a minute analysis of the process of justice, beginning with an account of the political obligations of the judge and district attorney, proceeding to a consideration of the habits of mind of the twelve jurymen, and ending with a summary of the majority and minority opinions of the court of appeals, and a discussion of the motives, ideals, traditions, prejudices, sympathies and chicaneries behind them.

Do I say “faults”? “Faults” is not the word. Rather say “methods” and let it go. This is the way that Dreiser chooses to write; and say what you will against it and against him for choosing it, you must always admit that he keeps his story unflaggingly interesting from start to finish, that he thinks out his characters to six places of decimals, that nothing worth knowing about them is ever forgotten or glossed over or wrongly estimated, and that he achieves in the end an illusion so nearly perfect that it is almost uncanny.

“The Financier,” it appears, for all its 780 pages, is merely the first volume of an elaborate history of Cowperwood; and Cowperwood, one soon senses, is meant to be a typical specimen of the American money baron, in his lordlier and more soaring incarnations. Note that I say money baron, and not hog baron or guano baron. The fellow, in brief, is of the highest aristocracy of wealth, an aristocracy which shades off, without material change, into all other aristocracies. Even money itself is too dirty for him: he confines himself to its cleaner symbols, stocks and bonds. And all he wants of those symbols is the power that goes with them—power to make lesser men do his bidding, power to surround himself with rare and beautiful things, power to amuse himself as he likes with women, power to defy and nullify the laws made for numskulls and weaklings. This, indeed, is the secret of the man: you must think of him as a sort of amalgam of revolutionist and voluptuary, a highly civilized Lorenzo the Magnificent, a man who would not hesitate two minutes about seducing a saint, but would turn sick at the thought of harming a child, even his own.

Naturally enough, there are breakers ahead for such an iconoclast in the Philadelphia of war time and the seventies, for that is the background against which he stands in this volume. On the one hand his quick thinking, his ruthlessness and his clearness of purpose give him great advantages over the old time bankers of the town, with their church pews and their side whiskers, and even over the rising school of political looters and bribers; but on the other hand he is just a bit too swift, financially and morally, for the procession. Old Edward Malia Butler, the rich political contractor, is the man who finally brings him down. Butler has a reason not wholly impersonal and patriotic: Cowperwood, with astounding impudence, has debauched his daughter under his very nose. So the old warhorse of graft goes snorting to the courts, and the young Napoleon of the Stock Exchange goes unrepentant to prison, brought virtuously to book, with all the solemn mountebankery of the law, for helping the City Treasurer to tap the city treasury. This brings us nearly to the end of the first canto of the Cowperwoodiad. When our hero emerges, the Black Friday of 1873 is impending, limitless in opportunity for thrifty souls, and when it comes he makes a million in four hours. Soon afterward, his wife divorced (I forgot to tell you about his wife), he and Aileen Butler set out for Chicago. The real theater of his high deeds, it appears, will be the Babylon by the lake, where all that is most foul in American life is side by side with all that is most hopeful and healthy and clean.

Thus the mere story, reduced here to somewhat misleading elementals. The virtue of it, as I have said, lies not so much in the way it is accomplished as in the thing accomplished. An enormously complex process, the interaction of crooked politics and crookeder finance is made clear, dramatic, fascinating. Cowperwood himself, the principal figure, stands out in the round, comprehensible, appealing, alive. And all the others, in their lesser measures, are done as well—the pale wife of this relentless male; Aileen Butler, his mistress; his doddering and eternally amazed old father; his old-fashioned, stupid mother; Stener, the City Treasurer, a dishrag in the face of danger; and old Edward Malia Butler, that barbarian in a boiled shirt, with his Homeric hatred and his broken heart. Particularly Old Butler. The years pass and he must be killed and buried, but not many readers of the book will soon forget him. Dreiser is at his best when he deals with old men. You remember, of course, Jennie’s father in “ Jennie Gerhardt,” always in the background, as penny wise as an ancient crow, trotting to his Lutheran church, so pathetically ill used by the world he never understands. Well, Butler is another such, vastly different in all externals, but the same dismayed, helpless and heartbroken old man. What will Dreiser make of Cowperwood at sixty? In the next book of the history we shall find out.

So goes space, and books without numbers remain. Among them, too, are many that you can’t afford to miss. For example, “M s. Lancelot,” by Maurice Hewlett (Century Co.), an amazingly lively and entertaining tale of pre-Victorian days, with the Great Duke Himself (whoever he may have been) for its chief personage. Young Charles Lancelot, of the Treasury, marries Georgiana Strangways for love, and then dangles her before the Duke in the hope of getting on thereby. A dangerous, and even caddish business, for the Duke is a great devourer of such confectionery, but somehow one feels that Charles is far more the fool than the scoundrel. As for the Duke, he is bagged at once. Charles becomes his private secretary. Then he proceeds, with considerable dignity, to notify Georgiana that he is ready to accept her favors. Alas, for the Duke—Georgiana is not that sort of a girl. What is more, she convinces him, against all his experience of the world and the fair, that she isn’t, and so he kisses her hand, pats her head and assures her of his distinguished and eternal consideration. And he is as good as his word, for when Georgiana presently falls in love with Gervaise Poore, the passionate poet, it is the Duke who helps her to elope, and the Duke who convinces Charles that it would be ungentlemanly to drag her back. Altogether an excellent story, written bouncingly and ingratiatingly. The Duke cuts a capital figure in it, and Georgiana is a sentimental Georgian heroine to the life, and Charles and Poore, each in his separate way, are astonishing and delightful lovers ad absurdum. No man, indeed, knows how to do a fantastic comedy of this sort better than Mr. Hewlett, whether the scene be Italy of the Renaissance or modem England. He can be whimsical and tender, as in “ The Forest Lovers” and “The Fool Errant,” and again he can strike authentically the sonorous Rabelaisian note, the note of loud, profane, heroic laughter, as in “ The Song of Renny” and “Brazenhead the Great.” I am aware of no fictioneer of the second rank who gives a better show for the money. If you are for the bitter problems of the world, you had better go to some other booth, but if the mood of joy is upon you, and you itch for an hour or two of light romance, allegro in tempo, prodigal in coloring and with a sly and searching humor in every line of it, then my advice is that you look for the sign of Hewlett

Another blithe and amusing fellow, but with a shade more sentiment than the aforesaid and a shade less heartiness, is William J. Locke, whose current offering is “ The Joyous Adventures off Aristide Pujol” (Lane). All Locke heroes, of course, have much in common: they are all hopelessly out of sympathy with the money grabbing habits of the world; they are all blessed with unearthly and useless talents, such as speaking Walloon or playing the viol di gamba; and they all, or nearly all, pass from the stage with baroque and anachronistic brides on their arms. Aristide Pujol runs true to type. He is a peasant’s son from Aigues-Mortes-sur-Mediterranee, polished by many wanderings through France and England, a teacher of languages, a seller of pills for the ague, a guide for American schoolmarms in Paris, a builder of magnificent and mythical hotels, a boomer of obscure watering places, an amateur detective, particeps criminis in chicaneries with forged masterpieces, a field agent for dealers in Provencal wines. We follow him here through nine incredible adventures. Once we see him saving the face and meal ticket of a suspected wife; again we see him restoring romance to the life of a wife neglected and forlorn; a third time he is rescuing an abandoned baby from the roadside and essaying to bring it up by the bottle; yet again, he is involved appallingly in the farcical amours of a provincial maire; finally, he storms and takes the heart of Miss Anne Honeywood, whose golden wedding day will see her nearly a centenarian. Nimble, jocund tales, wholly impossible but wholly delectable.

Three books of small town sketches, and all with humor to the fore. Whether “ A Bit o’ Silence,” by Helen Hill McWilliams (McDowell), is fact or fiction I can’t tell you. Maybe it is a mixture of both. But however it may be, it presents an extremely lively picture of the people of a small suburban town, with their endless card parties, their virtuous flirtations and their innumerable progeny. The thing has no visible plan, it simply rambles on light-heartedly for page after page. But the net impression I carry away from it is that of a group of very real folks, healthy, happy and kind of heart— rather Philistines, perhaps, with “The Rosary” on their pianos and the works of Robert W. Chambers on their bookshelves, but still honest men and good women, and typical of the best stock left in this conquered land. The “Sunshine Sketches” of Stephen Leacock (Lane) take us to Mariposa, a one-horse town of the Canadian hinterland, and reveal to us a humorist well worth better acquaintance. Here, indeed, are half a dozen character pieces of very high quality, always pushing close to the brink of burlesque, but always hauled back in time. Good stuff, too, is in “ Zebedee V,” by Edith Barnard Delano (Small-Maynard), which essays to limn the hinds and hindesses of a Maryland village—not a village of the Black Belt, rotting in the sun, but one in the upper tier of counties, wholly un-Southern in habit and tradition. Here again we are always close to frank burlesque, and never quite go over. I recommend all three books. They are unpretentious and friendly and human.

“The Lost World,” by A. Conan Doyle (Doran), removes the bad taste left by the author’s last volume of second-rate short stories. It is a tale of an expedition into the wilds of South America, to a lost land of ape-men and prehistoric monsters, and it is written with captivating plausibility and ingenuity. Moreover, it presents a character novel and fascinating, Professor G. E. Challenger, to wit, a veritable rhinoceros of science, bowling over all lesser men like so many ninepins and floundering his way magnificently to fame. Not since his Sherlock Holmes days has Doyle given us anything so boldly conceived or so well written. Another thriller of parts is “Hell’s Playground,” by Ida Vera Simonton (Moffat-Yard), a chronicle of white men run amuck and gone to the devil in tropical Africa. The author shows inexperience in every line: whenever she faces a genuine situation she spoils it by overwriting it, and the whole thing is messy with sentimentality. But for all that, there is plenty of evidence of a firsthand knowledge of Africa in it, and so the facts it presents are very interesting, whatever the deficiencies of the romance. Read it as a commentary upon Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness,” and perhaps even “Heart of Darkness” will gain something.

Finally, there is “Object: Matrimony,” by Montague Glass (Doubleday Page), a thin little reprint of one of the best comic stories of our time. “Object Matrimony” first appeared in a weekly periodical in the midst of the Potash and Perlmutter series, but the famous cloak manufacturers do not figure in it. It tells the story of Philip Margolius’s courting of Miss Birdie Goldblatt, and of the dramatic and laudable manner in which Mr. Henry Feigenbaum, of Pennsylvania, was plucked from his celibate cell by Miss Birdie’s sister, the mustached but talented Miss Fanny. You remember it, of course. It is an almost perfect piece of humorous writing, a little masterpiece. Myself, I wouldn’t trade it for the best of O. Henry.

(Source: Brown University Library, http://library.brown.edu/pdfs/143515176629755.pdf)