Books For the Hammock and Deck Chair

H.L. Mencken

The Smart Set/June, 1909

IF a merciful Providence had not sent James Gibbons Huneker into the world, we Americans would still be shipping union suits to the heathen, reading Emerson, sweating at Chautauquas and applauding the plays of Bronson Howard. In matters exotic and scandalous he is our chief of scouts, our spiritual adviser, our Herr Kapellmeister, our philosophical Lieutenant Shackleford, our anti-Nordau, our Ludwig of Bavaria.

Who else but Huneker first uttered in our midst the magic name of George Bernard Shaw? And who but Huneker led the bitter fight for old Henrik of Norway, and forced Sudermann and Strindberg down our esophagi, and taught us that Scandinavia raises other things than servant girls, and steered us, all a-tremble, into the devil’s maze of that terrible fellow, Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche? He is ever in the forefront of the fray, this Huneker, with loud shouts of defiance issuing from his unfathomable recesses; and upon his crusader’s shield is a startling coat-of-arms, to wit: an American theatergoer, purpure, suffocating beneath a burst keg of sodic sulphite, or; crest: a blushing Sunday school superintendent, gules; motto: Ich sage ja! Let us, then, be grateful to him for his hardy scouting and pioneering, and let us not neglect to reward him with loud praises to his face while he is yet with us; for later on, I suppose, he will find the climate oppressive, and our gratitude, alas, will not avail to cool it for him.

Time was when Huneker wrote a book a year and innumerable magazine and newspaper articles in the intervals, but that was because we needed him more in those primitive days than we do today. We were still obsessed by the notion that Victorien Sardou was a great thinker and the Rev. Lyman Abbott a daring revolutionary, and a great deal of industry was required to rescue us from our follies. Today we are less fatuous and less ingenuous. We have read “Nachtasyl” and “The Father,” and Shaw and Ibsen are so familiar that they have become respectable. When Nietzsche’s “ Ecce Homo” appeared the other day one heard not a single howl in all Christendom—not even in the United States.

And so Huneker is less assiduous than of yore, and his latest book appears after a hiatus of three years. He calls it, “Egoists: A Book of Supermen” (Scribner, $1.50), and the title sufficiently explains it. It is a commentary upon the lives and ideas of men who set their private cogitations against the jurisprudence of the world—Stendhal, Stirner, Blake, Nietzsche, Ibsen and their like. These critics of the statutes fail entirely to agree among themselves. They swear at one another, indeed, in a frightful manner. But one thing they have in common, and that is a boundless contempt for orthodoxy, for unthinking regularity, for mute acquiescence. They ask of a man, not if he practices the doctrines he preaches, but if he actually believes them. If you think it over, I fancy you will find that this is a rather more difficult test than the common one.

Mr. Huneker’s own ideas, of course, have not remained stationary while he has been changing ours, and so it is no surprise to find that his present book differs greatly from his earlier volumes. His viewpoint is more detached than it used to be, and so his judgments are more veracious. No longer poisoned by the toxins of symbolism, he now studies Ibsen, not as an architect of maddening and childish cryptograms, but as a writer of stage plays. And in his exploration of other stages there is now the same clearer vision. He sees the dishonesty of Stendhal, the posing of Baudelaire, the theatricality of Nietzsche, the ineffectuality of Stirner. He no longer tries to make us admit genius in a Princess Mathilde. He no longer argues ridiculously that “the gold and green forest in ‘Little Eyolf is a symbol of what Rita Allmers brought her husband”—i.e., that the wealth she brought him is a symbol of itself. He is at the brink of fifty years and he has had time to think things over. The heat of the conflict is behind him.

The Huneker style is at once a delight and a despair. It sparkles with exotic metaphors, queer discords and unprecedented syntax—and then again it lumbers with incomprehensible allusions and confusing counterpoint. The interpolated exclamations, breaking the backbones of otherwise graceful sentences, remind one somehow of the later Nietzsche; and the readiness to sacrifice subject, predicate, even sense, to form—here we have Bart Kennedy in a frock coat. The musician is constantly cropping up in Huneker. His chapter upon Maurice Barres might serve as a program for a tone poem by Richard Strauss, and his discourse about Nietzsche is in sonata form, with the scherzo left undone—allegro: the Nietzschean creed, in brief; andante: the Wagner romanza; finale: the riotous Antichrist.

An entertaining and illuminating book. A book of sound, workmanlike quality. You may not share Huneker’s joy in his Egoists, but you must admit that these gentlemen are worth knowing. Here we have them, clawed from their native Swedish, Norwegian, German and French into the homely English tongue. Let us hope that Mr. Huneker, for the good of our souls, will resume his old schedule of a book a year, and let us hope, too, that his next volume will deal with a group of our own bright young men—Pinero, George Moore, Joseph Conrad, Frank Norris, Phillips, Mackaye, Jones, Wells, Barrie, Chesterton.

The best novel in the month’s list is “Fraternity,” by John Galsworthy (Putnam, $1.50). I may as well confess that I took it up with a violent prejudice in its favor, for Joseph Conrad had been praising it, and Conrad knows more about the making of prose fiction than any other man now living, but by the time I got to the end I was full of entirely original admiration. Galsworthy works in Conrad’s manner, though his style and his matter are entirely different. That is to say, he tries to set forth not only the actual words and acts of his characters, but also the motives underlying them and the natural forces underlying the motives. The hero of the average novel is a lay figure in a vacuum. His nationality is a mere label, affixed to make the book sell, and he takes in nothing but oxygen from the air he breathes. Not so with Hilary Dallison, of “Fraternity.” He belongs to one certain race, to one certain age and to one certain state of civilization. He is the eternal man, conditioned by atmosphere.

Specifically, the scene of the story is the London of symphony concerts, self-consciousness and uneasy conscience. Hilary, belonging to this London, reaches out his hand altruistically to one of the innumerable Londons underfoot. The sex wire crosses the wire of brotherhood—and so we have our fable. It is a story that no paragraph can describe—a story full of insight, artistry and good writing.

In “The Fair Mississippian,” by Charles Egbert Craddock (Mary N. Murfree) (Houghton-Mifflin, $1.50), we have a novel that in more than one way suggests “Henry Esmond.” The very name of the hero—Edward Desmond—is reminiscent, and the tortured progress of his love affair with the splendid Mrs. Faurie, ten years his senior, is more reminiscent still. Edward is a poor scholar, doomed to eke out a miserable living as tutor to unstudious boys, and Mrs. Faurie is the feudal mistress of a Mississippi principality. Like Esmond, Edward woos his lady with unselfish service, and like Esmond again, he wins her gloriously in the end—let the gossips say what they will about the scandalous inversion of the customary difference in ages. A placid and pleasing story, with more than one touch of art in it.

Unfortunately, Miss Murfree has not yet freed herself from the spell of Poe—an obsession which has rested upon the majority of sub-Potomac writers, to their damage, for lo, these many years. This spell reveals itself in a liking for ponderous and sonorous words—for phrases and clauses that go marching across the page like the German sentence described by Mark Twain in “A Tramp Abroad.” Miss Murfree’s chapters are heavy with such elephants of diction. “The memories, the dreams, the traditions, the broken hopes that had hallowed the old chattels were too immaterial even for the cormorant-like comprehensiveness of the inventories …” Thus she begins on page two, and thus she thunders on to page 429.

Poe, an ignorant and pretentious man, was inordinately fond of all this pomp and circumstance. It gave him an air of learning—and, next to devilishness and melancholy, learning was his favorite pose. I have no doubt that he sat up many a night trying to think of some cataclysmic variation of the too simple phrase, “He said.” The writers of the South, brought up at the Poe altar, too often borrow his bass drum and gold lace. The result is a vast excess of parts of speech, a surfeit of polysyllables, an appalling flapping of wings.

Let it be clearly understood that Miss Murfree is not the worst, nor even the next worst offender. I know fifty Southern scriveners who often suffer from the malady in more acute form—myself among them. I was born in the South, though by no means a Southerner, and I have lived all my life within a mile of Poe’s tomb, and so I am hopelessly infected with the loathsome bacilli. In the hope of curing myself I have swallowed Huxley, Stevenson and Kipling in enormous doses, but the taint remains. If I try to write, “The dog bit a negro,” I find myself swallowed up by, “A terrified Afro-American was partially ingested by the sinister dachshund.” It is a horrible affliction, believe me, and only by eternal vigilance and heroic physicking may one get even temporary relief.

A lot of busybodies are collecting funds just now to build a new and more unsightly monument to Poe. If I had the chance, I would steal the $17 so far amassed, invest it in editions de luxe of the Master’s works—and heave them into the Chesapeake.

Which reminds me that a Southern author named George Hazelton has recently made Poe the hero of a novel called “The Raven” (Appleton, $1.50). Many actual incidents of the poet’s life are introduced, and in the fictitious passages an attempt has been made to violate the probabilities as little as possible. Mr. Hazelton, it must be admitted, has done his work very well. The Poe that he draws is a theatrical and bombastic young man who delights in grand scenes and discourses in bathos that would give joy to the leading man of a provincial stock company. This picture of the poet, I believe, will appear exceedingly realistic to all who have given unemotional study to his life and writings.

Another Southern writer on deck this month is James Branch Cabell. His “Cords of Vanity” (Doubleday-Page, $1.50) is a sort of amorous rhapsody in which the hero discusses at considerable length his passions for a dozen separate and distinct women. Incidentally, he indulges in sundry observations upon other themes, and in one place inserts a spirited defense of the trade, or vice, of writing best sellers.

There is a certain flimsiness in the plan of the book, but Mr. Cabell does the writing of it with so much originality and humor that it stands head and shoulders above the common run of department store fiction. There is distinction in his style—a quality as rare in American novels as Christian charity in a Christian bishop—and he has an artist’s feeling for form and color, not to mention a musician’s feeling for rhythm. Altogether, he shows the talent of a true craftsman.

So does Helen Mackay, whose “Houses of Glass” (Duffield, $1.00) is a collection of Parisian stories in the manner of De Maupassant. Some of them are a bit too impalpable to suit our beefy, Anglo-Saxon taste, but in the best of them there is excellent art. They have no elaborate machinery and no subtle discussion of causes and motives. They are often, indeed, sketches rather than stories. A sentence—and the stage is set. Four pages—and the curtain is down. And yet the picture that remains is sometimes curiously vivid.

The book is of special interest on account of the fact that it is paperbound, in the French style. The type and illustrations also suggest French book making, and Miss Mackay has even adopted a quasi-French method of punctuation—a gratuitous and obnoxious affectation. It would be a good thing if more American publishers imitated their French fellow manufacturers in the make-up and binding of their novels. As it is, our best sellers are often sent forth in covers which suggest a manicure girl’s dream of classy dressing. For such volumes the retail price is $1.08—a dollar, I suppose, for the lascivious “art” and eight cents for the reading matter. If these same books were bound in the cheap lemon-colored paper of the French publishers they might be sold at the French and German price—two or three francs or marks—and the reader’s $1.08 would buy two instead of one.

“John Silence,” by Algernon Blackwood (Luce, $1.50), is a collection of five tales of the occult and grotesque. They are held together by the common character of John Silence, a sort of combination of Sherlock Holmes and Prof. James H. Hyslop. John’s specialty is the detection and circumvention of felonious spooks. Folks who are walloped in the night by unseen hands, or pursued by family hobgoblins, or annoyed by ancient curses, or infested by ceaseless devils—such folks send for him and he rids them of their transcendental parasites. Mr. Blackwood writes with plausibility and skill, and in more than one place gives the reader a nerve-racking thrill.

In “The House with No Address” (Doubleday-Page, $1.50) E. Nesbit attempts to do the same thing, but with very slight success. Here we have the story of a Salome dancer who delights that dear public by using the gory head of her murdered husband in place of the customary papier-maché caput of John the Baptist. The husband is a coarse fellow and we are glad to see him decapitated, but the rest of the story fails to interest. The author, in truth, seems to look upon it as a somewhat silly joke herself. From the very first page her tongue is ever in her cheek.

“Infatuation,” by Lloyd Osbourne (Bohbs-Merrill, $1.50), shows a defect which seems to be the predominant one in the American novel. That is to say, it is a good story, well imagined and well planned, but told lamely and unconvincingly. The same fault is to be found in fully thirty per cent, of the native fiction I have read since last summer. Boil down the average American novel to a five hundred word scenario, and you will find that its central fable is interesting and plausible. But read the novel itself—and you will begin to realize the abysmal difference between inventing a pretty melody and writing a full length symphony. Any sane person might have devised the plot of “McTeague,” but it took Frank Norris to write it.

The idea at the bottom of “ Infatuation “ is this: that, despite the platitudinarians and the moralists, it is often possible for the love of a good woman to lift up a man, no matter how foolish the woman and no matter how weak the man. Here we have a thesis well worth maintaining, for it stands opposed to one of the firmest dogmas in our social code. Like the thesis of “A Doll’s House” and that of “Magda” and that of “The Power of a Lie,” it is revolutionary and outrageous—and therefore probably nine-tenths true. George Moore would have developed it into a searching study of motives and mental processes, and Zola, perhaps, would have made half the world accept it; but Mr. Osbourne seldom gets beneath its externals. His characters fail to ring true at critical moments, and along with some admirable scenes, he gives us some very trite ones.

The man in “Infatuation” is a cheap actor, and the woman is the daughter of a millionaire. There is abundant verity in the former, and the gradual change in his outlook upon life is set forth with considerable skill, but the woman seldom rings true. We are asked to take too much for granted—to believe too readily that a woman of her education could lack all self-control, and that a woman lacking all self-control could inspire it in another. Better, by far, had Mr. Osbourne chosen a less civilized heroine—a girl, let us say, nearer the man’s own class, and with a better comprehension of his environment and motives. Certain it is that this plan would at the least have saved the novelist from that creaking millionaire father who now reduces more than one of his scenes from reality to tiresome stage play.

“Loaded Dice,” by Ellery H. Clark (Bobbs-Merrill, $1.50), is the story of a bold Chicago man who figures out that the existence of a just and wrathful God is an uncertainty whose probability may be expressed by odds of one to one. He decides to stake his all upon the negative, and thereafter his conscience troubles him no more. Accordingly, he launches himself upon a career of crime which includes blackmail, murder, bribery, unchastity and false pretenses. After a few years of this he finds himself governor of Illinois and with $20,000,000 in interest-bearing securities. Then a foeman’s bullet goes plowing through his lungs, and he proceeds beyond the sky line, to learn whether he has lost or won.

Mr. Clark writes good journalese, but he hasn’t much imagination, and so the situations that he devises for his story are the situations that would occur to any busy Indiana Thackeray. The result is a book that observes all the league rules for best sellers.
“The Gun Runner,” by Arthur Stringer (Dodge, $1.50), is a romance of wireless telegraphy, with the scenes laid in a turbulent Latin-American capital and on a banana ship at sea. The old-time heroes laid about them with battle-axes, but the D’Artagnans of the future, no doubt, will sit up in a conning tower like Kipling’s admiral, “bossing six hundred men.”

The wireless itself is the real hero of Mr. Stringer’s dashing story. We get some notion of its mystery, its sneaking silence, its might. But let us not forget the young American at the key in the Laminian’s wireless room— a young American of quite human faults, but of true courage when the time comes. And let us not forget that thoroughly charming girl who rewards him at the end. An excellent romance for an idle afternoon.

“The Royal End,” by the late Henry Harland (Dodd-Mead, $1.50), tells anew the story of John Alden and Priscilla. It is from a king on a throne that John comes to America with his intimate message, and it is a pretty Yankee girl who falls into his arms. The story is full of Mr. Harland’s artificial but irresistible dialogue, and the characters have no little rotundity and interest; but as a whole it is an insubstantial tale.

The publishers deserve a word of appreciation for the remarkably beautiful form of the book. The binding is a joy, and the title page and text are masterpieces of the printer’s art.

“With the Night Mail,” by Rudyard Kipling (Doubleday-Page, $1.25), is a short story recounting the journey of an airship from London to Canada in the year 2000. Mr. Kipling’s familiarity with engineering technicalities is amazing, and his skill at employing them to achieve atmosphere is amazing, too. The present story is a fitting companion to “A Fleet in Being” and “The Devil and the Deep Sea.” Do not fall into the error of holding that Kipling’s days are done. Some of his best stories, I believe, are yet ahead of him.

Few books of the spring show more of novelty and fascination than “Ladies Fair and Frail,” a large, dignified, blue and gilt, copiously illustrated tome by Horace Bleakley (Lane, $5.00). It is of human interest all compact, and scarcely one of the multitude of personages who walk its pages is a bore. If you dip into the first chapter you will read on to the end, and when, at the brink of the index, you put it down, there will be before your mind’s eye a picture of the eighteenth century as instinct with life and reality as a battle piece byMeissonier.

Specifically, the book purports to recount the life and adventures of six ladies of the half-world peerage—veritable goddesses of the bar sinister—their early struggles, their rise to eminence, their historic conquests and epic blandishments. Mr. Bleakley is trying to write, not racy gossip, but serious history. For every statement that he makes he has authorities, documents, a bibliography: he devotes three whole pages to a controversion of the theory that Prince George of Wales was the father of Grace Dalrymple Eliot’s child, who became wife, mother and ancestress to the noble Lords Bentinck and Cavendish. But his very painstaking accuracy adds to the charm of his book. Reading it, one breathes the air of the most light-hearted and charming of centuries—the air of coffee house, pump house, Hyde Park, Covent Garden and the Bath of Beau Nash’s day.

The orthodox historian is a laborious pundit who concerns himself with constitutions, diplomatic dispatches, acts of Parliament and lists of the slain. Mr. Bleakley knows better than that. He looks beneath the surface and he finds proof there that no cabinet minister in all Europe in the spring of 1768 was more powerful than Nancy Parsons. He looks again and he discovers Kitty Kennedy fighting—and beating—the Mayor and Corporation of London. Once again, and he sees Fanny Murray the storm center of a scandal that shook England to its foundations. These sweet girls were members of the Third House, elected to serve during good behavior—and good behavior meant the continued possession of willowy waists and sparkling eyes. They made peers with a smile and broke treaties with a frown. King George himself, though his private preference was for fat Hanoverian waddlers, could scarcely prevail against them.

Mr. Bleakley has done his work admirably. His book is a valuable contribution to history and an equally valuable contribution to romance.

Another book which deals with the human side of history is “Queen Anne and Her Court,” by P. F. William Ryan (Dutton, 2 vols., $5.00). Mr. Ryan begins his story with the birth of Anne in the reign of Charles II, and it is not until his second volume that we see her on the throne. But this is a necessary arrangement, for the horde of flatterers, grafters, courtesans and gentlemen adventurers who buzzed about her began their siege of her long before she actually wore the British crown. What a strange company Mr. Ryan sets before us—the Churchills, with their stupendous intrigues; the Hydes, with their claims to quasi-royalty; the place jobbers, high and low; the queer Continental carpet-baggers; the wits, the retailers of court scandal, the captains, bards and keepers of the sheep!

The author’s style is a chemical combination of one atom of Carlyle, one atom of Thackeray and one atom of the younger Dumas. He moralizes, he apostrophizes, he exhorts—and then he writes a tumultuous page of romance. A book, this, full of variety and color—a glimpse of the Olympians in their pajamas.

The stories in “The Little Gods,” by Rowland Thomas (Little-Brown, $1.50), more than once suggest Kipling, and I have no doubt that their author indulges in a virulent admiration for the Bard of Mandalay—and so do we all, by heck!—but they seldom descend to the level of mere imitation. Mr. Thomas is too sincere for that; he is always plainly thrilled by his own story. Sometimes this thrill gets into the reader, too, but more often one feels that the author’s craftsmanship is not equal to his idea.

A case in point is the story called “God’s Little Devils.” Here we have the history of a white man’s gradual reversion to savagery in the Philippine jungle. The incidents are well imagined and the whole tale is well managed, but only its externals are laid before us, and so its general effect is that of a mere anecdote. Consider, for contrast, the infinitely superior art with which much the same fable was set down by Joseph Conrad in “Heart of Darkness,” and again in “Lord Jim.” The difference between the two stories is that between a literal translation of a grand opera libretto and the full score of the same opera; and the difference between the two writers is that which separates a promising apprentice from a superb master workman.

The stories in the book have little relation, one to another, but Mr. Thomas tries to connect them by a series of banal paragraphs which seem to owe their origin to “Kim.” Let him avoid such lame nonsense in future and his pathway to eminence will be smoother.

The Man in Lower Ten—
by Mary Roberts Rinehart.
(Bobbs-Merrill, $1.50)
A corking good tale of mystery, told with ingenuity and humor. Miss Rinehart’s characters are interesting and human, and so they differ enormously from the stuffed dummies of the average detective story.

But Still a Man—
by Margaret L. Knapp.
(Little-Brown, $1.50)
A study in clerical psychology, showing the processes whereby a young preacher adapts himself to his environment. There is more than one flash of insight, and the book, as a whole, will be of considerable interest to all who take ecclesiastics seriously.

The Great Wet Wat—
by Alan Dale.
(Dodd-Mead, $1.50)

A collection of amusing sketches of life on an Atlantic liner, with scores of pictures by H. B. Martin. Mr. Dale is an incorrigible comedian and is always ready with some saying that almost makes you bust your sides a-laughin’.

by Alice Perrin.
(Duffield, $1.50)
A workmanlike novel of East Indian life, with an English heroine who falls in love with a fanatical missionary. It is not the gorgeous, devilish East of Kipling’s immoralists, but the drab East of the theological explorers.

The Thoroughbred—
by Edith Mac Vane.
(Dillingham, $1.50)
A novel full of thrills and turmoil, written in a style recalling “The Duchess.” It is difficult to put away the thought that Miss MacVane is joking.

Much Ado About Peter—
by Jean Webster.
(Doubleday-Page, $1.50)
Refreshingly cheerful and clever sketches of life in the servants’ hall, with occasional glimpses of the superior beings upstairs. Altogether a welcome novelty.

The Amethyst Cross—
by Fergus Hume.
(Cassell, $1.50)
One of Mr. Hume’s most exciting tales of mystery and adventure. A good second to “The Mystery of a Hansom Cab.”

The Miller and the Toad—
by Richard Clifton.
(Sherman-French, $1.50)
This book seems to be a sort of sequel to the Book of Revelation. Further than that, I am unable to fathom it. Will someone in the audience kindly step forward and explain it?

The Wiles of Sexton Maginnis—
by Maurice Francis Egan.
(Century Co., $1.50)
Character sketches from a tranquil Catholic parish. Sometimes the incidents are labored, but the people are always delightfully natural and interesting.

The Climbing Doom—
by Laurence Ditto Young.
(Dillingham, $1.50)
A romance of horror and adventure, in the manner of Rider Haggard, with the principal scenes laid in South America.

The Planter—
by Herman Whitaker.
(Harpers, $1.50)
The story of a young American’s adventures in tropical Mexico, and of his conflict with American stock jobbers. An uncommon story, told in an interesting way.

Old Lady Number 31—
by Louise Forsslund.
(Century Co., $1.25)
An odd little comedy of old folks, decidedly out of the beaten track.

The Landlubbers—
by Gertrude King.
(Doubleday-Page, $1.50)
The spirited story of a pair of lovers who find themselves marooned upon the hulk of a wrecked ship. An excellent book for the deck chair.

The Biography of a Silver Fox—
by Ernest Thompson Seton.
(Century Co., $1.50)
The story of a fox hero who is a great deal more human and entertaining than many of the professedly human heroes of the spring novels. A hundred pictures.

The Music Master—
by Charles Klein.
(Dodd-Mead, $1.50)
The author’s novelization of his very successful play. The story of poor old Von Barwig loses little by its change of form.

Aline of the Grand Woods—
by Nevil G. Henshaw.
(Outing Co., $1.50)
A romance of French Louisiana, full of color and atmosphere. The author is a very welcome recruit to the ranks of American story tellers. In more than one place he gives proof that he knows how to write.

Lady Dean’s Daughter—
by J. Noot.
(Cochrane, $1.25)
An unconscious burlesque.

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.