Books to Read and Books to Avoid

H.L. Mencken

The Smart Set/February, 1910

WHEN a book is a good one and worth the price asked for it by the book selling banditti, the best thing for the reviewer to do is to say so in plain words and have done. Any attempt to enlarge upon that bald verdict is not only gratuitous and use less, but also extremely fatiguing to the reviewer. The customary vocabulary of his art fails him, for it is made up almost entirely of terms derogatory and infuriate, and when he seeks to make use of the ordinary phrases of praise he finds them flat to the taste. In addition, he discovers that his processes of ratiocination, usually so fluent and accurate, are impeded by his novel emotions. He is in the impossible position of a man trying to read Kant in the vestry room while waiting for his bride to arrive at the church, or of a woman trying to recite the Lord’s Prayer with a mouse nibbling at her ankle. Take my word for it, the enterprise is one of staggering difficulties.

If an editor came to my laboratory today and asked me to write an intelligible review of “Huckleberry Finn,” “The Antichrist” or “The Old Bachelor,” I should have to charge him a thousand dollars for it to pay for the wear and tear on my system; but if he asked me to fill a few pages with observations upon a book by Sir Oliver Lodge, Marie Corelli, E. Phillips Oppenheim or Edward Bok, I should be glad to do it for three dollars, with one hundred dollars extra if he demanded that I read the book.

Let these lofty thoughts serve as overture to a brief notice of H. G. Wells’s new novel, “Ann Veronica” (Harper, $1.50). Wells, though still a young man, is a veteran of his book stalls and has planted a lavish crop of best selling wild oats. He made his debut, unless I err, with a volume of thrilling short stories, and proved there by that Edgar Allan Poe, as a performer upon the spinal column, was all thumbs. Next he began to write scientific romances in the manner of Jules Verne, and did it so much better than Verne that he revolutionized the trade. Later he set up shop as a serious philosopher and wrote a number of speculative books of a most interesting sort, in which the clear thinking made one forget the occasional smear of rancid socialism. Then Wells turned his back upon all such fripperies and devoted himself to a novel called “Tono-Bungay.” In this book a new Wells was revealed, a Wells with a firm grip upon the structure of the novel, an individual and illuminating point of view and an alarmingly ready pen. He had something to say and he knew how to say it; his characters stood out in the round; his fable was engrossing and significant; he burrowed down into the natural forces and human passions which color the civilization of today. The result was the best novel, at least in English, published during 1909. Compared to it, the year’s books of the Anthony Hopes, Hopkinson Smiths and Weir Mitchells were as warts to Ossa.

“Ann Veronica” misses some of the epic surge of “Tono-Bungay,” but it is still a novel infinitely above the common level. Just as in “Tono-Bungay” Wells concerned himself with the modern man of action and his war upon the laws commercial, so in “Ann Veronica” he deals with the modern woman and her war upon the laws moral and social. Ann Veronica Stanley is no unique monstrosity, but a young woman of a type already growing familiar. Born into an orthodox English home, she is in it but not of it, for its fireside god is respectability and hers is knowledge. It seems to her far more noble to master the microscope than to shine at bridge whist. This notion strikes her father as sacrilegious and indecent, and there ensues a vexatious and hopeless wrangle, which Ann Veronica ends by departing for London to wrestle with the world in her own way. How she encounters orthodoxy there as well as at home, how her woman’s skirts and her woman’s pruderies handicap her in her struggle for existence, how love comes into her life to color her outlook, and how, in the end, she works out her destiny—all this is told in Mr. Wells’s vivid and entertaining book. It is not a mere idle romance fashioned for fools, but a careful study of a type whose aspirations and demands will soon be making a loud noise in our philosophical groves and sanhedrins.

I regret that the same high praise cannot be poured upon “The Lords of High Decision,” by Meredith Nicholson (Doubleday-Page, $1.50). When Mr. Nicholson seized his pen in hand, I have no doubt his aim was as exalted as Mr. Wells’s, but aiming is one thing and bringing down the duck another. “The Lords of High Decision” is a novel of the familiar and depressing American type—that is to say, it deals with interesting and important things in a formal and sentimental manner. The hero is a young Pittsburger of vast wealth and loose morals—a personage common enough to deserve serious investigation. But Mr. Nicholson’s exploration of his mind is confined to a superficial examination of his skull. To explain his vileness we must be content with the news that he has a raging thirst, and to explain his redemption we must be content with the news that he falls in love. The other characters are from the common stock; I read the book last week and have already forgotten them. Here and there a picturesque passage proves that Mr. Nicholson has a pretty gift for literary composition, but at no time is there any evidence that he knows how to write a novel.

“The Cash Intrigue,” by George Randolph Chester (Bobbs-Merrill, $1.50) is a story of the sort that needs no comment. Such tales are written in great quantity by a host of busy authors. As a rule, they first entertain the plain people as serials in the second class magazines, and are then put forth between covers, in gaudy, lithographed wrappers. For a brief month they dazzle us in the bookshops; one or two reviewers, as in honor bound, hail them as masterpieces, and they appear in the dope sheets of best sellers. And then they are suddenly, cruelly and permanently forgotten. Read a thousand such books and you will not encounter a single plausible character or a single poignant situation or a single flash of true humor, insight or understanding. They are not even fables, but merely inflated anecdotes.

In the present case the author cannot take refuge behind the plea that he can do no better. Such a defense would be sound enough if offered by George Barr McCutcheon, William H. Osborne, Thomas Dixon, Hall Caine or any other such literary blacksmith. But Mr. Chester is no blacksmith. On the contrary, he is a man of consider able talent, whose early short stories showed a lot of promise. They had humor in them and ingenuity; they were worth reading. Let him go back, in the name of all the little devils in Gehenna, to his earlier manner. Let him resuscitate his lost ideals. Let him have done with shoddy goods.

Even worse is “Three Thousand Dollars,” by Anna Katharine Green (Badger, $1.25). It is tedious, improbable, affected, silly, artificial, incredible, wearisome, banal. It has, indeed, almost every fault in the pharmacopoeia save obscenity—which is not properly a fault at all, but merely a merit unwisely exaggerated. The story of mystery, at its best, is a sorry thing. It depends for its appeal upon one of the most degraded of human yearnings—the desire to behold marvels and to stand agape. This desire is strongest in children, theologians and savages. When it reveals itself in an educated adult it can be regarded only as a lamentable weakness, like biting the fingernails, going to vaudeville shows or drinking witch hazel. The man who makes a practice of reading detective stories is a man in imminent if unconscious peril of grave aberrations. As a next step he may begin to admire George M. Cohan’s music.

I am willing to admit, of course, that some detective stories show unnatural merit. I even insist upon it. The various diverting yarns written by Mary Roberts Rinehart prove it. But that is because Mrs. Rinehart writes with her tongue in her cheek. In her books the orthodox detective story is burlesqued, and the result is commonly enjoyable, just as a burlesque upon “Camille” may be enjoyable—as it actually is in “La Traviata,” particularly when Tetrazzini’s vast bulk wobbles in the death agony—whereas “Camille” itself is hideously offensive to the entirely human mind. In Mrs. Rinehart’s latest book, “When a Man Marries” (Bobbs-Merrill, $1.50), the comic element becomes everything. It is not literature, I grant you, but it is still infinitely above plain flapdoodle. A book of harmless and amusing foolery.

Another such book is “Lady Mechante,” by Gelett Burgess (Stokes, $1 .50). Here we have a bundle of fantastic improbabilities, with a stratum of pungent satire at the bottom of them. The story is grotesquely impossible, but it is still near enough to humanity to give it zest. There are novelists of the day, I opine, who may read a moral in its extravagances. A number of drawings by the author do no harm.

In “The Call of the Heart,” by L. N. Way (Dillingham, $1.50), we come upon maddening physiological enigmas. A woman of thirty, wooed by a presentable gentleman and loving a rather devilish married man, decides to risk the Great Adventure with the married man. He seems to be a bit reluctant—perhaps it is bashfulness—but she has resolution and so drags him on to the encounter. Chapter XI ends here, and the reader falls back upon his imagination. In Chapter XII we behold the cold gray dawn of the morning after. The poor girl is horrified, disgusted; her fingers “tremble and fumble”; her eyes are fixed in “a stare of terror.” She flees in loathing. Why? I am sure I don’t know. The problem is beyond me, and apparently it is also beyond this Mr.—or is it Miss or Mrs.? —L. N. Way. At any rate, no satisfactory explanation is offered. Perhaps the book is intended as a document in support of Mr. Bok’s crusade for the more specific instruction and entertainment of the young person. But is a woman of thirty a young person?

P.S. She marries the presentable gentleman in the end.

Coming to Eden Philpotts, I must confess a lack. He is a skillful and workmanlike writer, and his method and manner are admirable, but I find it utterly impossible to grow interested in his people and their doings. His latest book, “The Haven” (Lane, $1.50), deals, like those that have gone before, with the folk of Devon, but he has moved down from Dartmoor to the sea. The story is about fishermen and their wives—their aspirations, their prejudices, their eternal toil. I am concerned about Devon fishermen but slightly. They interest me, indeed, about as little as it is possible for any group of human beings to interest me. In Kaspar Almayer, rotting on his remote and God-forsaken river bank, I become enormously engrossed; and so, too, in Huck Finn on his raft, and Hamlet wrestling with his blue devils; but the tale of Ned Major’s struggle against that destiny which doomed him to be a fisherman leaves me cold. All this by way of apology, and not by way of criticism. I am perfectly willing to accept the word of those critics who say that Mr. Philpotts is an accomplished fictioneer and “The Haven” a great book.

In “Priscilla of the Good Intent,” by Halliwell Sutcliffe (Little Brown, $1.50), I encounter a demand for a similar apology, though one, perhaps, less abject. The scene here is the north of England, and the personages strongly suggest those of Philpotts. They do not interest me, but once again the writer gives proofs of his capacity. Mr. Sutcliffe, I suppose, is an Englishman. The English have excellent second-raters.

We return to America in “The Automatic Capitalists,” by Will Payne (Badger, $1.25)—to America and the orthodox American novel. The central characters are a pair of nefarious young brokers, who perform financial cadenzas with money which belongs, by the laws of God and man, to others. The tale is entirely incredible, but more than once amusing. It passes.

So does “The Concentrations of Bee,” by Lilian Bell (Page, $1.50). It is not a work of art, but a good enough yarn to read while the train is stalled. Miss Bell’s fondness for magnificent personages persists. She gives us peeps into high society; we are introduced to a “young millionaire architect” and other magnificoes. The fable itself concerns a widow who seeks to shake off the disgusting tentacles of a sister-in-law. Miss Bell invests this effort with her kittenish comedy, but in real life it would be serious drama. Of all the curses of civilization, indeed, there is none more appalling than that convention which requires us to be polite to relatives-in-law. A man, let us say, meeting, loving and marrying an amiable young woman, discovers, after it is too late, that her folk do not partake of her amiability—that her elder brother is an incurable bore, of unsound politics and unclean fingernails, a borrower of small change, a baseball fiend, a loud laugher; that her Aunt Mary is a frowsy advocate of foreign missions, bazaars and other such vapidities; that her very mother, perhaps, is an unbearable busybody and shrew. And yet he is compelled, by our absurd notions of decency, to be polite to these nuisances, to receive them in his home, to listen to their wretched chatter, to heed their voluntary advice in his most private affairs. Until that law is repealed I shall continue my existence a capella. I have long ranked it, indeed, fourth among my seven and twenty sound reasons for avoiding matrimony as a pestilence.

But back to the novels. The next is “Jerd Cless,” by Myra Daley (Cochrane, $1.50) , a long and extremely tedious story of life among the Mormons—not the libidinous apostles and archangels of Salt Lake, but the simpler believers of the hills. Tedious it is, as I have said, but it has its moments, and with the aid of an experienced copy reader it might have been vastly improved.

“A Wave of Lipe” is a novel written by the late Clyde Fitch in his nonage and now dug up for the enjoyment of his enemies (Kennerley, $1.50). It deals with the folk who inhabit the borderland between Society and Bohemia, and is the wretched potboiler of a boy who wrote in the fashion because he was in sore need. Now and then there is a glint of Fitch’s quaint humor and some show of his later feeling for atmosphere, but in the main it inspires sorrow rather than anger. As a contribution to American literature it has little more importance than a speech in Congress or a drama by Charles Klein.

In “The Title Market,” by Emily Post (Dodd-Mead, $1.50), we come upon a philosophical romance, with international marriage as its theme. Mrs. Post, I have been informed, is a woman of the first fashion, and in consequence she has had a chance to observe with her own eyes the persons whose connubial adventures she presumes to discuss. The result is a story with more than one touch of realism in it, but it cannot be said that the author lifts many psychological veils. Her conclusions, indeed, seem to be practically identical with those reached by earlier and less privileged sages. A marriage between a sensible American girl and an honorable Phoenician prince is very apt to be as happy as unions of educated folk ever are, but a marriage between a foolish American and a sinister exotic is almost certain to end in wailing and gnashing of teeth. So we read the lesson.

Mrs. Post has yet to write a novel worth studying, but her work shows a gradual advance, and if she chooses her models wisely she may yet rise well above the popular level. It is scarcely the province of a lowly book reviewer to conduct a correspondence school in novel writing or to give impertinent advice, but I find myself impelled to suggest, apropos of nothing, that for a young novelist, the best thing to do with the works of Mrs. Humphry Ward is to burn them, and that much invaluable knowledge is to be got out of a careful reading of George Moore, Emile Zola, Joseph Conrad and William Makepeace Thackeray, and particularly out of “Evelyn Innes,” “Germinal,” “Lord Jim” and “Barry Lyndon.” These books have perfect form and come close to perfection in detail. They have veritable human beings in them, and they grapple not ineffectively with the riddle of human destiny.

A book of no such solemn burden is “Old Harbor,” by W. J. Jopkins (Houghton-Mifflin, $1.25). Here we have a loose collection of character sketches, drawn with a kindly pencil. The scene is a decayed New England seaport, and about all the personages there clings an ancient air. Now and then the book suggests the conventional b’gosh story, and at other times it recalls Hawthorne at his worst; but in the main it is amusing enough. Miss Wetherbee, Nan Hedge and others in the picture have a pleasant flavor.

Let us now thank the gods for a literary critic with something to say and the good will to say it in a loud voice—a critic who has thought things out for himself, to five places of decimals, and evolved plain definitions of good and bad—a critic without reverence or respectability, but with a hard fist and steam behind his wallop! Such a rare immoralist is Percival Pollard, whose book of praise and blame, “Their Day in Court” (Neale, $3.00), has kept me chuckling for a week. In many matters I fail to follow Mr. Pollard. When he maintains, for example, that Ambrose Bierce is a genius of the first water, I am tempted to howl. And when, in a book plainly designed to be comprehensive, he fails to mention H. G. Wells, Frank Norris, Joseph Conrad, “In Babel,” “Sister Carrie” or “Dragon’s Blood,” I wonder. And when, finally, he excepts “Three Weeks” from his anathemas, as a work “too fine in its art to be critically reviled,” I swoon away completely. But these stray faults do not contaminate the rich, full flavor of the book. It is to the customary scrapple as blood is to ditch water, or quinine to molasses taffy. In a country, indeed, which regards Hamilton Wright Mabie as a serious critic and James Whitcomb Riley as a great poet, a man of Mr. Pollard’s assertive masculinity stands forth like a truth seeker in the Baptist college of cardinals.

The charge of effeminacy seems to lie at the bottom of his sweeping indictment of current American letters, and that charge, I am convinced, is well founded. Nine-tenths of our readers of books are women, and nine-tenths of our women get their literary standards from the Ladies’ Home Journal. As a result, their literary deities are Hopkinson Smith, Mary E. Wilkins, Dr. Henry Van Dyke and Mrs. Burton Harrison. So far we have come only upon harmless virtue. But harmless virtue, even when indubitably kosher, sometimes palls, and the great human yearning to be devilish—that universal impulse toward the forbidden which prompts even innocent old ladies, who would perish of blushes over Boccaccio, to indulge in tedious tournaments of obstetrical anecdote—that yearning or impulse asserts itself. Thus we arrive at “The Yoke,” “Sir Richard Calmady,” “The Awakening” and other such putrid stuff, beloved of high school girls and discussed in hoarse whispers by the woman’s clubs.

In this way feminine prudery and eroticism produce two classes of books, the one made up of incredible love making in the open air, and the other made up of indecent love making on the hearth rug. The books of the first sort pour forth in immense quantities, for not even a servant girl would be silly enough to read one of them twice; but those of the second sort need not be produced so copiously, for every one of them is read to pieces. For novels that deal seriously with life as it is actually lived by human beings, putting lovemaking in its proper place—which is to say, far down the scale, above eating, perhaps, but well below dying—there is no profitable audience in our fair republic. That field, indeed, is entirely forbidden to the author. If he would see his portrait in the “literary section” and know the taste of truffles, he must keep out.

Mr. Pollard puts half of the blame for all this upon the American critics, but that attempt to be just merely complicates his task without helping it, for a majority of all the professional critics in America are women, and many of the men in the minority are tenors. It is quite the rule in newspaper offices for women to write the book reviews, and even the literary monthlies seem to prefer them. That these fair critics are often well educated, as education goes, and almost always honest I freely grant, but the fact that they are women remains insistent, and that fact must inevitably color their judgments. If they are “ladies,” they must necessarily start out with the firm conviction that old Frankie Rabelais was a vile and clumsy fellow, without true wit; that Machiavelli was a bad philosopher and Congreve no gentleman; that “Studies in the Psychology of Sex” is a nasty book and “The Secret Agent” a dull one. Such convictions are essential to the “lady,” but they are very dangerous, I believe, to the critic. Once embraced, they lead with certainty to the theory that Robert W. Chambers is a master of his art and Dr. Elwood Worcester a deep thinker.

It is against all such notions of literature that Mr. Pollard wages his holy war. He argues for the truth in letters—not for groveling, flea hunting naturalism, but for that larger truth seeking which essays to study the anatomy of human impulse and to depict with understanding the eternal struggle between man’s will and his destiny. He gives praise where it is due, and he calls names when they are deserved. There is a hearty honesty about him, an evident desire to do justice at all costs, a will to acknowledge merit and denounce sham. He follows no man in his judgments, and he apes no man in his writing. There is individuality in his style. He knows how to set forth his ideas in English that has character. If you read his thick book you will probably damn him now and then, as I have done, but you will never fall asleep over it.

The melancholy burden of Cicely Hamilton’s book, “Marriage as a Trade” (Moffat-Yard, $1.50), is that marriage, for women, is a trade accursed. And yet—oh, the pity of it!—it is the only trade for which the average woman has any talent. The result of this, says Miss Hamilton, is that the average woman approaches the hymeneal altar with the grim despair of a union musician tackling the nine symphonies of Ludwig von Beethoven. There is no romance in it for her; she is merely going to work. For her board, lodging and clothes and a miserable dole of pin money she will slave away her life, losing her beauty in kitchen wars and submitting daily to the loathsome caresses of a vile male. The romance, says Miss Hamilton, is all on the side of that male. He is loving and passionate, but the woman, at best, is no more than meekly complaisant. To him marriage is a poem, a game of chance or a delightful vice; but to her it is only a trade.

The picture is sad and makes one dab at one’s eyes and nose, but a brief inspection reveals the fact that it is also unauthentic. In a word, Miss Hamilton wastes her tears upon a mythical martyr fashioned of her own oblique observation and shallow philosophy. When she says that marriage is the normal trade for the average woman she tells the obvious truth, but when she maintains that that trade is badly paid and that the average woman finds it slavery, she begins to fare upon the quicksands of fallacy. Marriage, indeed, is the best paid of all trades for women, for its average practitioner is an equal partner in ninety per cent of her employer’s income while he lives, and is entitled, by our benevolent laws, to one-third of his savings when he dies. And her income begins as soon as she accepts her position and continues unabated until her employer’s death or flight, no matter how slight her professional skill.

Find me another trade in which the worker’s remuneration is not dependent upon her efficiency! A woman without the slightest talent for housekeeping gets just as much as one whose capacity approaches genius. She poisons her husband with tough steaks, wastes his money upon senseless gauds and allows his socks to become veritable sieves, and yet he must give her a halfshare in ninety per cent of his income, and leave her a third of the remainder when he dies. If he seeks a divorce upon the ground that she has swindled him and threatens to swindle him incessantly in future, the learned judge beckons to a catchpole and has him thrown out as a maniac. If he would escape from her clutches, he must outrage his fastidiousness by beating her or his sense of decency by giving her “evidence”; and even then he will have to pay her from forty to seventy-five per cent of his income in alimony until death releases him.

Considering all this, I fail to follow Miss Hamilton. I fail to follow her, again, in her argument that women regard marriage, not as an agreeable business, but as a necessary and disgusting duty. As a bachelor I pretend to no intimate knowledge, but observation leads me to believe that, when caressing is going on, the woman enjoys it quite as much as the man. In the normal male, indeed, the impulse to dalliance is almost as rare as the impulse to go to church. He is satisfied with an occasional kiss; orgies of osculation disgust him; he has an ascetic streak. Not so the woman. Her emotions are less susceptible to voluntary inhibition. Of simpler organization, she never yields to intellectual concepts, but only to physical exhaustion. So long as she is sure that no one is looking she is insatiable.

And yet Miss Hamilton wants us to pity this woman as a glorified white slave! With all due respect, I refuse. If this seems too harsh, I offer a concession. That is to say, I promise not to envy her.

Coming to “Why American Marriages Fail,” by the late Anna A. Rogers (Houghton-Mifflin, $1.25), we are upon more nourishing provender. There are six essays in this little book, and in every one of them there is abundant good sense. Mrs. Rogers’s criticisms of the American wife, the American man and American education are not those of the tedious sophists of pulpit, college rostrum and yellow journal. She has something new to say, and she says it in clear English, and it is worth hearing. I am not going to attempt a summary of her arguments. You must read them for yourself.


Farming It—

by Henry A. Shute. (Houghton-Mifflin, $1.20)

The grotesque adventures of an amateur farmer, told in Judge Shute’s best comic manner.


The God-Man—

by Rev. Henry Lorsh. (Badger, $1.50)

Sloppy strophes by an elderly ecclesiastic.


Hints For Lovers—

by Arnold Haultain. (Houghton-Mifflin, $1.00)

A pretty book of rather obvious epigrams.


A Mission to Hell—

by Edwards Eells. (Sherman-French, 80 cents)

The story of an attempt to carry the gospel to Hell. A rich and racy tale, full of surprising incidents and shrewd observations.


Candles in the Wind —

by Maud Diver. (Lane, $1.50)

Nearly 150,000 words of East Indian romance.


Skimming the Skies —

by Russell Whitcomb. (Badger, $1.50)

A rip-snorting airship yarn for boys.


Sweet Nancy —

by Marion Ames Taggart. (Page, $1.50)

A book for girls, beyond my trousered comprehension, but vastly praised by fair young critics of my acquaintance.


The Diamond Master—

by Jacques Futrelle. (Bobbs- Merrill, $1.50)

A galloping yarn of gems and jeopardies, mystery and murder, high finance and young love.


Veronica Playfair —

by Maude Wilder Goodwin. (Little-Brown, $1.50)

A somewhat artificial eighteenth century romance, with Bolingbroke, Pope, Swift, Benjamin Franklin, Beau Nash and Lady Mary Wortley Montague among its personages.


Marie of Arcady—

by F. Hewes Lancaster. (Small-Maynard, $1.50)

The scene is the ‘Cajan country of Louisiana, and the characters are simple Acadians. A quaint and sentimental little story of considerable charm.


The Prodigal Father —

by J. Storer Clouston. (Century Co., $1.50)

A fantastic farce, in the F. Anstey manner, with a valetudinarian hero who finds the fountain of eternal youth and emerges from its waters the very devil of a fellow.


The Courts of the State of New York—

by Henry W. Scott. (Wilson, $5.00)

An exhaustive treatise upon the origin, history, composition and jurisdiction of the New York courts past and present.


The Clue—

by Carolyn Wells. (Lippincott, $1.50)

A breathless detective story, fashioned according to the approved models. Miss Wells’s private Sher lock Holmes—Fleming Stone by name—is the wonder worker, as he was of her earlier story, “A Chain of Evidence.”


Jeanne of the Marshes —

by E. Phillips Oppenheim. (Little-Brown, $1.50)

An overpowering tale of villainous aristocrats, passionate love and “hig leef,” by the male Bertha M. Clay.