Mainly About Novels

H.L. Mencken

The Smart Set/December, 1910

Let us plunge into the novels. A chromatic stack, fully four feet in height, stands between my writing table and the hook from which my Sabbath raiment dangles. First comes “Enchanted Ground,” by Harry James Smith (Houghton-Mifflin, $1.50), the priggish history of a prig. With prigs in general I do not presume to make a quarrel. No doubt there is some wise and providential purpose in their creation and survival, however incomprehensible it may be to the healthy human mind. They may be sent into the world to amuse us, as psychical researchers amuse us, or to disgust us, as politicians disgust us, or to weaken our conceit in our species, as evangelists weaken it. Whatever the idea underlying their multiplication, if idea there be, we should at least accept them tolerantly as inevitable features of the human landscape, heaved there by destiny like the rest of us and no more responsible for their peculiar vileness. But to accept them thus is one thing and to revere them is quite another thing. Mr. Smith makes the fatal mistake of revering his prig. He asks us to applaud as a hero a young man so atrociously righteous, so inordinately smug that by contrast with him the average Y. M. C. A. secretary seems a besotted and blaspheming rake.

The name of this prodigy of all the obnoxious virtues is Philip Wetherall, and he is a young architect making his way in New York. Up in the dull New England town whence he has come a fair girl, Georgia Raeburn, devotes her maiden meditations to his perfections. She loves him and he loves her, but duty keeps her at the side of her father, a slow dying colonel of infantry, and the desire to get on in the world keeps Philip at his drawing board in New York. Presently the city, that Babel, that City of Power, of Opportunity, of Consuming Ambition, of Lavish Seduction—I am quoting the fine writing in Chapter I—presently that Crematory of Youth engulfs him. Specifically, he stops a runaway team, gazes into the startled eyes of (Mrs.) Katrinka Brace, goes home with her, returns the next day, comes back a day or two later, stays pretty late, is overcome by remorse, flees the siren, fights off her further lures—and rushes off to tell Georgia all about it.

Georgia, soaked in the transcendental morality, is overcome by the discovery that Philip is a human being and sends him away in horror, as if he were some loathsome criminal. He himself takes much the same view of his adventure. His conscience tortures him savagely. He fears that he will never live down his felony. He is ruined—a male Magdalen—a brother to the White Slaves. But in good deeds he finds peace. He rescues a pure young chorus girl from a pack of scoundrels who plot her undoing. He saves a fellow man from the Rum Demon—and discovers in that fellow man the illegitimate son of Georgia’s pa! Sensation! Moral hisses! But even out of such a scandal the larger good emerges, for Georgia now forgives Philip for his sins and they are duly made one. A tedious and preposterous story, badly imagined and badly written.

In “Now,” by Charles Marriott, the Englishman (Lane, $1.50), we encounter that exceedingly rare thing—a novel with ideas in it. The average journey man fictioneer of the moment seems to fancy that he has done his work when he has manufactured what the canned reviews call an “absorbing” plot. His characters are mere shapes in the flat, without souls or viscera. We never catch them in the act of thinking, for the good and sufficient reason that their creator himself is incapable of that act and so cannot depict it or even imagine it in others. That is what ails the department store novel: its author is an ignoramus. He has a certain barbarous talent for devising incredible fables—in which art the imaginative infant and the senile negro are his peers—but he has no capacity whatever for interpreting those fables in terms of human impulse and yearning. In consequence he never achieves a true novel, for the things he writes do not help us in the slightest to penetrate and understand that fascinating but eternally mysterious animal, our fellow man.

But Mr. Marriott is of another sort. He is an interpreter as well as a mere story teller; he has ideas about his characters, and those characters in their turn have ideas of their own.

In “Now” we are chiefly diverted by certain apostles of a novel and rather startling philosophy—“the philosophy of laissez-faire with a new meaning.” They raise a revolt against the incessant fussing, the unending reformations, the tiresome social criticism of the day. Reducing their wants to the irreducible minimum, they find it perfectly possible to satisfy every one of those wants under the present scheme of things, and so they dismiss all proposals for change as so many vacant lunacies. In a word, they refuse to bother—and are happy. But don’t mistake this for a polemical novel! Mr. Marriott himself is no evangelist, but a tolerant observer of the human comedy, and he observes acutely and to some purpose. His book is decidedly interesting and unusual.

That air of melancholy indecency which I have more than once remarked in the second-rate English novels of the day hangs over “The Lonely Lovers,” by Horace W. C. Newte (Kennerley, $1.50). The “powerful” and “dramatic” moment of the story appears when the hero, “John Eldridge Pallion, an orphan of twenty-six,” makes two appalling discoveries on his wedding night, the first being that his fair young bride—it is his second venture—is ignorant of those physiological secrets which, according to Mr. Bok, every girl should know, and the second being that his first wife, whom he has thought of as happily drowned, is still alive. A certain theological flavor appears in places. It is now the fashion in England to discuss the great problems of faith in second-rate novels, just as it is the fashion in the United States to discourse ponderously and asininely of “mental suggestion,” “thought transference” and other such inventions of the incredibly credulous. More pornography of the hesitating, blushful English sort is to be found in “Atonement,” by F. E. Mills Young (Lane, $1.50), in which we have the affecting story of a young woman who seduces an astonished, and afterward remorseful and terrified, Englishman, and then commits suicide.

The theme of “Leonora,” by Frances Rumsey (Appleton, $1.50), is that of “What Maisie Knew,” but Miss Rumsey handles it with a good deal more solemnity and assurance than the sportive Mr. James. Mr. James forsakes Maisie while she yet wears a pigtail, but we follow Leonora through adolescence and into womanhood. A horror of divorce is the idee fixe of her life. She shudders at the very thought of sundered ties. And then, alas, she falls in love with the fascinating George Trent, who has a living ex-wife, the devilish Bertha Trevor. What to do? Leonora has to admit that she loves Trent, but she can’t force herself to marry him. The thought of that mocker, that death’s head, that satanic ex-wife, will not down. “Day and night,” she cries, “it’s with me; she was your wife!” So she flees—and Trent pursues her. Passion, in the end, triumphs over the fixed idea. “I can be your mistress!” she suddenly exclaims, “panting, quivering and raising the illumination of her face to his.” It is now easy for Trent. He convinces her that being his wife can’t be much worse, and pretty soon she falls “on her knees before him, offering him, with outstretched hands, the magnificent surrender of her womanhood.” A somewhat depressing tale, but still one showing plenty of merit. Miss Rumsey has a crisp, epigrammatic style, and displays a sense of humor in all places save those wherein it is most needed.

Another brilliant but unpleasant novel is “The Creators,” by May Sinclair (Century Co., $1.30). The scene is literary London and most of the personages are writers of books. When we first encounter these scriveners most of them seem to be considering the marriage question. Is it wise for an imaginative writer to marry? Is the creation of works of art compatible with the creation of a personal posterity? Apparently not. George Tanqueray, blind to the lovelight in Jane’s eyes, marries a servant girl who has nursed him through pneumonia—and pretty soon finds her such a nuisance that he has to lock her out of his workroom. Jane, on the rebound, marries Hugh Brodrick, a magazine editor—and finds motherhood extremely fatiguing. One of her babies spoils a novel and another one is spoiled by a novel. Laura marries Owen Prothero, a genius like herself—and he dies miserably of tuberculosis pulmonalis. A sad business all round! But Miss Sinclair knows how to write. She has a hand for effective dialogue; her grip upon her characters is firm; she knows the London she is describing.

The chief trouble with “The House of Bondage,” by Reginald Wright Kauffman (Moffat-Yard, $1.50), is that it comes half a dozen years after Theodore Dreiser’s “Sister Carrie.” With Mr. Dreiser’s extraordinary book you are probably familiar; it is one of the most thoughtful and impressive novels in our latter day literature. The difference between the two books is made insistent by the fact that both presume to deal with the same thing —that pressure of poverty, ignorance and childish romanticism which pushes girls of the lower working class toward prostitution. Mr. Kauffman’s method is melodramatic; he deals with the obvious externals of the problem—with police corruption, for example, and the cheap theater and the organized merchanting of women. Mr. Dreiser’s method is quieter, more philosophical, more incisive; he is chiefly concerned, not with the machinery of vice, but with that intricate play of impulse and yearning which gives vice its victims. But Mr. Kauffman has written a serious novel in a serious manner; he has made an honest effort to put real people into it; he has cast aside the stuffed dummies of conventional American fiction, with their banal love making and their incessant automobiling, and endeavored to set before us a phase of city life which deserves the solemn consideration of all of us. There are faults of execution, but the book shows earnestness and thoroughness.

“The Doctor’s Lass,” by Edward C. Booth (Century Co., $1.50), is a well oiled, smooth running love tale of the fashion of 1875. A number of essentially Victorian weaknesses, such as the sentimental use of the present tense, give it a quaint, archaic flavor. The flavor is the old one of the good-hearted fellow who takes to himself an adopted daughter, falls head over heels in love with her and then finds the dual role of guardian and suitor extremely trying. The girl’s dissolute father and a younger admirer are important figures. The story is far from a masterpiece, but those who like old-fashioned fiction will enjoy it.

Another novel without electric shocks is “The Cradle of a Poet,” a delicate and deliberate study of unfolding personality by the Englishwoman who chooses to call herself Elizabeth Godfrey (Lane, $1.50). “Miss Godfrey” manages to make her quarryman-poet a very real and interesting fellow and to put a lot of good things into her chronicle of his adventures in love and living. Again, in “The Lead of Honour,” by Norval Richardson (Page, $1.50), one finds the cleanly fiction of an elder day. The hero here is Sargent Everett, a young Yankee who tackles fortune in turbulent Natchez, worst of Mississippi towns. The period is the ’30’s of the last century and the author gives a good picture of the manners of the time. Is the ending happy? Rather, let us call it sad but glorious. Sargent loves the beautiful Natalia, but kisses her good-bye at the end, and sends her to her worthless husband, while he himself plods on to Washington and to fame.

Rider Haggard next—a voice from the literary tomb! Do you remember how eagerly you read “King Solomon’s Mines” when the world was younger—and “Allan Quartermain” and “Nada the Lily” and “She”? And you remember how keenly you felt the outrage when Mr. Haggard took to writing political tracts and books of travel and novels with commonplace human beings in them! Well, in “Queen Sheba’s Ring” (Doubleday-Page, $1.50) there is a happy return to first principles. Once more we are in the heart of Africa, among its ancient and forgotten races; once more we deal with stupendous riches and a queen of ravishing beauty; once more we meet Quartermain in the flesh, though now his name is Richard Adams. This book is a second “She,” and if you still like that sort of thing, despite the spread of free education and the progress of civilization, you will fairly wallow in it.

From the master to the disciple! The name of that disciple is R. H. Hazard and his composition is “The House on Stilts” (Dillingham, $1.50), a tale in which event follows event with positively staggering speed. Imprudent Mr. Hazard! After landing his castaways upon the island of Gabrielle and dragging them through astonishing adventures and then packing them off safely to the United States, he sets off a volcano beneath the island and blows it to pieces. And now what is he to do about the sequel? Rash man! Of mere novels—as one may say, just as one says a mere stage play, a mere American or a mere square meal—there is no end. To the book reviewer they present unusual difficulties, for it is hard work investigating them and harder work reviewing them. They lack any assertive quality.

They are neither good enough to inspire enthusiasm nor bad enough to provoke revilement. To this honest rank and file of current fiction belong “The Old Flute Player, “ by Edward Marshall (Dillingham, $1.50), a novelization of a one-act play by Charles T. Dazey, the eminent author of “In Old Kentucky”; “The Man and the Dragon,” by Alexander Otis (Little-Brown, $1.50), the story of an heroic young journalist’s battle with political corruptionists; “Hearts Atour,” by Edith Chetwood and Edward P. Thompson (Evening Post, $1.50), a chronicle of travel in England, with tedious love making interspersed; “The Double Cross,” by Gilson Willets (Dillingham, $1.50), a red hot yarn of Mexican adventure, with a pair of Latin heroines; “Too Many Women, “ by some person or persons unknown to the jury (Stokes, $1.25), an amusing account of an English bachelor’s long, bitter and unsuccessful battle against matrimony; “The Yardstick Man,” by Arthur Goodrich (Appleton, $1.50), a pleasant story of the stock market and honest love; “If David Knew,” by Frances Aymer Mathews (Dillingham, $1.50), the thrilling tale of a society woman who goes in for morphine and of a rascally medical gentleman who tries in vain to steal her from her unsuspecting husband; and “The Steering Wheel,” by Robert Alexander Wason (BobbsMerrill, $1.50), a comic treatment of the war between Socialism and Capitalism, with an amour thrown in for good measure.

To a rather more pretentious class belong “The Sword Maker,” by Robert Barr (Stokes, $1.25), an historical romance born ten years behindtime, with the scene laid in medieval Germany; “The Lost Ambassador,” by E. Phillips Oppenheim (Little-Brown, $1.50), a tale of mystery into which Mr. Oppenheim has put all his customary thrills; “The Star Gazers,” by A. Carter Goodloe (Scribners, $1.00), in which a young American girl goes to Mexico to forget one lover and there finds another; “Forbidden Ground,” by Gilbert Watson (Lane, $1.50), an unusual and interesting tale of peasant life in wild Albania; “Molly Make Believe,” by Eleanor Hallowell Abbott (Century Co., $1.00), the diverting story of a lonely fellow, tortured by rheumatism, who buys consoling letters from a letter writing syndicate and then falls in love with the very human young woman who actually writes them; and “Masters of the Wheatlands,” another of Harold Bindloss’s vigorous stories of the great Northwestern wilderness, with plenty of love making and adventure (Stokes, $1.50).

In “Down Home with Jennie Allen,” by Grace Donworth (Small Maynard, $1.50), we come upon b’gosh humor which quickly grows fatiguing. Whatever laughs are in it are engendered either by misspelled words or by grotesque and incredible distortions of the language. Yet Miss Donworth does not hesitate on occasion to turn her bucolic ignoramus into a soaring poet and subtle philosopher. “Love in the Weaving,” by Edith Hall Orthwein (Broadway Pub. Co., $1.50), bears the marks of the amateur upon every page. It has been advertised under the startling caption, “Beats Three Weeks,” but there is really nothing alkaline in it. The new Williamson book is called “The Motor Maid” (Doubleday-Page, $1.50), and its principal scenes are laid in the Riviera. Every reader is familiar with the high social position of the Williamson personages, with their habit of motoring through beautiful lands and with their dashing manner of making love. “The Peacock of Jewels” (Dillingham, $1.50), is a detective story in Fergus Hume’s most elaborate manner, with amazing entanglements and thrills in plenty. There are more thrills in “Bucky O’Connor,” by William MacLeod Raine (Dillingham, $1.50), and “The Refugee,” by Captain Charles Gilson (Century Co., $1.25), the former a melodrama of the great Southwest, with gun play in nearly every chapter, and the latter a tale of the English coast in the great days when all gentlemen carried horse pistols and dressed like Chauncey Olcott. “The Gold Brick,” by Brand Whitlock (Bobbs-Merrill, $1.50), is a collection of twelve short stories of political life, most of which depict battles between rings and reformers. Mr. Whitlock writes with the sure knowledge born of sitting in the game, and his politicians are a good deal more real than those of the average muckraking novel. Even his reformers are substantially human. The style of his writing is chiefly conspicuous for its straightforward simplicity, a quality found at its best in the higher sort of newspaper reporting. “Tropical Tales,” by Dolf Wyllarde (Lane, $1.50), is a collection of short stories of decidedly uneven merit. The best of them is “The House in Cheyne Walk.” Its manner recalls, though somewhat vaguely, Anthony Hope’s “The Philosopher in the Apple Orchard”; it has delicacy and atmosphere and shows a good deal of skill. In “New Faces,” by Myra Kelly (Dillingham, $1.50), there are eight stories. The best of them, perhaps, is the opening story, “The Play’s the Thing,” a diverting account of an East Side settlement club’s struggles with “Hamlet.”

Admirers of Miss Kelly will of course want this posthumous book, but she will be most pleasantly remembered for her first volume, “Little Citizens.” In “Breen Villagers,” by Beulah C. Garretson (Broadway Pub. Co., $1.00), the twelve stories deal with the outlandish characters of a small New England town. The same ineptness marks the nine tales in “The Trail of a Sourdough,” by May Kellogg Sullivan (Badger, $1.50), the scene laid in Alaska.

Finally comes “The Hickory Limb,” by Parker H. Fillmore (Lane, 50 cents), a well-written and amusing comedy of child life, with excellent pen drawings by Rose Cecil O’Neil.

A new poet who shows a great deal more promise than the average debutante is Thomas Durley Landels, author of “Visions” (Sherman-French, $1.00). Mr. Landels is at his best in amorous lyrics; he knows how to manage a refrain effectively and he senses the artistic value of simplicity. His more ambitious efforts are less interesting. I use the term “more ambitious,” of course, as mere critical slang. In point of fact, the writing of good love songs is an enterprise ambitious enough to enlist any poet’s best efforts. Let Mr. Landels be made welcome; his summons to strum the harp comes from the foothills just below Parnassus.

In “Eva’s Choice,” by Leda Gano Browne (Cochrane, $1.00), I detect no summons at all. The verse of this poet is highfalutin’ and absurd. In “Poems of Truth, Love and Power,” by William Lee Popham (Broadway Pub. Co., $1.50), we come to downright balderdash. A portrait of the author graces the volume, and we are informed that he was born upon the blue steppes of Kentucky in 1885 and that he began life as a plowboy. But today, “by the strokes of his pen and the delivery of his lectures he commands the attention of anxious thousands. He spends his time in giving expression to beautiful sentiments and helpful thoughts to calm the waves in life’s great ocean.” Oh, noble youth! Of his merits as a minnesinger the publishers discourse shamelessly in a preface signed, “Very respectfully, Broadway Publishing Company.” From this we learn that the abominable flapdoodle following “kisses the beauty land of flowers, love, womanhood, music and art,” and that it is “affectionate, romantic and dreamy.” It is, in brief, the kind of stuff that wrings tears and guffaws from the hinds who patronize Chautauquas.

A fine poem by Lizette Woodworth Reese gives distinction to “Edgar Allan Poe,” a memorial volume printed by those women of Baltimore who are trying, apparently in vain, to raise a fund for a new monument to the author of “The Raven.” The rest of the volume (Warwick-York, $2.50) is given over to reprints of the addresses delivered at the Poe centennial celebration at the Johns Hopkins University in January of last year, and to a brief life of the poet by Mrs. John C. Wrenshall.

Why anyone should want to erect a monument to Poe is more than I am able to understand. He stands in no danger whatever of being forgotten. Go into any bookstore and you will find his books. All of us have read them and all our children will read them.

Personally, I have little liking for Poe’s poetry—Miss Reese’s pleases me far better—and less for his prose, but it would be idle to deny his influence and vitality. Next to Samuel Langhorne Clemens, he remains the most striking literary figure that the United States has yet produced. Let monuments be put up to commemorate the lives and great deeds of Holmes, Whittier, Lowell, Irving, Ingersoll, Taylor and other such fourth, fifth and tenth raters, who will be forgotten otherwise before the century runs out. But the erection of a hideous marble memorial to Poe strikes me only as a peculiarly offensive impertinence.

Whirligigs —
by O. Henry.
(Doubleday-Page, $1.20.)
The latest collection of the stories of this wonderful raconteur.

Pages from the Book of Paris —

by Claude C. Washburn.
(Houghton-Mifflin, $3.00.)
The work of two young Americans, familiar with every byway of the great city. A valuable book of impressions, beautifully illustrated with etchings by Lester G. Hornby.

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.