Novels Bad, Half Bad and Very Bad

H.L. Mencken

The Smart Set/November, 1912

Brief but spicy note from an estimable (and, I hope, not altogether uncomely) lady in Oswego, New York:

Don’t write so much about yourself. Stick to the books and you will give better value for the money. Verbum non amplius addam.

The point is well taken, and I accordingly address myself to the books, which happen, this month, to be all of fiction, and chiefly bad. For example, “Fate Knocks at the Door,” by Will Levington Comfort (Lippincott), a shining example of that occult windiness which passes, in these days of soul searching and the New Thought, for profundity. By the simple device of printing them with capital letters, Mr. Comfort changes quite ordinary words into symbols of lofty and ineffable things. On one page I find Voices, Pits of Trade, Woman, the Great Light, the Big Deep and the Twentieth Century Lie. On another are Mystic Motherhood, the Third Lustrous Dimension and the Rising Road of Man. It appears quickly that Woman is a creature far superior to woman. The latter is a shameless baggage, a beggar of kisses, a fibber of fibs, a partner in unutterable naughtinesses, a hussy. The former, on the contrary, is a Holy Spirit, the Transcendental Soul Essence, the Sempiternal Mother, the Way Uphill. Thus Andrew Bedient, the spouting hero:

I believe in the natural greatness of Woman; that through the spirit of Woman are born sons of strength; that only through the potential greatness of Woman comes the militant greatness of man.

I believe Mothering is the loveliest of the Arts; that great mothers are handmaidens of the Spirit, to whom are intrusted God’s avatars; that no prophet is greater than his mother.

I believe when humanity arises to Spiritual evolution (as it once evolved through Flesh, and is now evolving through Mind) Woman will assume the ethical guiding of the race.

I believe that the Holy Spirit of the Trinity is Mystic Motherhood, and the source of the divine principle is Woman; that prophets are the union of this divine principle and the higher manhood; that they are beyond the attractions of women of flesh, because unto their manhood has been added Mystic Motherhood. . . .

I believe that the way to Godhood is the Ris ingRoad of Man.

I believe that, as the human mother brings a child to her husband, the father—so Mystic Motherhood, the Holy Spirit, is bringing the world to God, the Father.

The capitals are Andrew’s—or Mr. Comfort’s. I merely transcribe and perspire. This Andrew, it appears, is a sea cook who has been mellowed and transfigured by exhaustive study of the Bhagavad Gita, one of the sacred nonsense books of the Brahmans. He doesn’t know who his father was, and he remembers his mother only as one dying in a strange city. When she finally passed away he took to the high seas and mastered marine cookery. Thus for many years up and down the world. Then he went ashore at Manila and became chef to an army packtrain. Then he proceeded to China, to Japan. Then to India, where he entered the forestry service and plodded the Himalayan heights, always with the Bhagavad Gita under his arm. At some time or other, during his years of culinary seafaring, he saved the life of a Yankee ship captain, and that captain, later dying, left him untold millions in South America. But it is long after all this is past that we have chiefly to do with him. He is now a young Monte Cristo at large in New York, a Monte Cristo worshiped and gurgled over by a crowd of mushy old maids, a hero of Uneeda biscuit parties in Godforsaken studios, the madness and despair of mellowing virgins.

But it is not Andrew’s wealth that inflames these old girls, nor even his manly beauty, but rather his revolutionary and astounding sapience, his great gift for solemn and incomprehensible utterance, his skill as a metaphysician. They hang upon his every word. His rhetoric makes their heads swim. Once he gets fully under way, they almost swoon. Well, all I ask is that you get the book and examine this precious “philosophy” of his for yourself. If you can find anything in it save a new variation upon the inevitable New Thought rumble-bumble, a vague and chlorotic hostility to the healthy joys and instincts of the flesh, a sentimental denial of the fundamental realities of life, a romantic and muddleheaded woman worship, then I offer you my affectionate regards and envy you your superior penetration. And the girls themselves! Alas, what pathetic neck stretching toward tinsel stars! What eager hearing of the soulful, gassy stuff! One of them has red hair and “wine dark eyes, now cryptic black, now suffused with red glows like the night sky above a prairie fire.” Another is “tall and lovely in a tragic, flowerlike way” and performs upon the violoncello. A third is “a tanned woman rather variously weathered,” who writes stupefying epigrams about Whitman and Nietzsche—making the latter’s name Nietschze, of course! A fourth is the Gray One—O mystic appellation! A fifth—but enough! You get the picture. You can imagine how Andrew’s sagacity staggers these poor dears. You can see them fighting for him, each against all, with sharp, psychical excaliburs.

And I have no doubt that thousands of other women, reading this chronicle of his portentous sayings and doings, will be charmed as much, if not more. Mysticism is now in fashion in these States. Such things as Karma, the Ineffable Essence and the Zeitgeist become familiar fauna, chained up in the cage of every woman’s club. Thousands of American women know far more about the Subconscious than they know about plain sewing. The idea that Mind is altogether superior to Body and that Spirit is the boss of both—this idea runs through the country like a pestilence. Physiology has been formally repealed and repudiated: its laws are all lies. Naturally enough, all this Advanced Thinking is reflected in a rising literature. Books upon the New Thought pour from the presses in copious streams, and among them works of sublimal fiction begin to appear. No doubt the old-fashioned fleshly novel, with its seductions and obstetrics, will have hard sledding tomorrow. In place of it there will be the New Thought novel, in which hero and heroine will seek each other out, not for the vulgar purpose of spooning in the dark, but for the lofty purpose of Uplifting the Race. Kissing is already unsanitary; in a few years, I suppose, it will be downright sacrilegious, a crime against some obscure avatar or other, a business libidinous and accursed. It will be worth a man’s life to chuck his wife under the chin.

Meanwhile, let it be said for Mr. Comfort that he shows a considerable facility in composition, at least in his more earthly moments. When he is describing something physical his descriptions are sometimes very vivid. This you will note especially in the earlier chapters of his book, wherein he deals with Andrew’s carnalities on land and sea. He has a taste for the gipsy phrase; one senses a genuine artist in him. But in his more soulful passages, when he goes sky-hooting into the interstellar spaces of Mystic Motherhood, he tends to adopt the common jargon of all New Thoughters. An inevitable decay. Style, after all, is inseparable from content, however the stylists may seek to make it appear not so. The sting and sweetness of words are in the concepts behind them. No man will ever write nonsense as magnificently as Huxley wrote sense. The New Thought will never produce a Pater.

From such unconscious humor it is refreshing to turn to the frank clowning of John Gore in “The Barmecide’s Feast” (Lane), a burlesque novel. What the plot is I can’t tell you, though I have read the book and enjoyed it immensely. A wild tumult of buffoonery, with no aim but to make you cackle. Max Beerbohm’s “Zuleika Dobson” was finer stuff, but this is good enough. Burlesque novels are too few and far between; we take our fiction too seriously, forgetting that it is seldom serious itself. Incidentally this book is remarkable for its price, which is eighty cents net. Why should anyone pay more for a novel? In Germany the common price is three marks and in France it is three francs fifty—say seventy-five cents in each case. Even in England the three-shilling novel is fast pushing its six-shilling brother overboard. But in this country we pay from one dollar net to one dollar and forty cents for gaudy covers in ten colors and maddening pictures of heroes seven feet in height. “The Barmecide’s Feast” is bound in cloth and is well printed on good paper, and there are half a dozen excellent drawings by Arthur Perm. Let us all hope that it will be the first of a long series at the same honest price. The publishers have been overcharging us long enough.

Trade goods. “The White Waterfall,” by James Francis Dwyer (Doubleday-Page), a South Sea romance detailing hair-raising adventures among savages. Read it; it will make you sweat. “The Woman,” by Albert Payson Terhune (Bobbs-Merrill), a novelization of William C. De Mille’s play of the same name, and a very fair union job. “The Red Button,” by Will Irwin (Bobbs-Merrill), a mystery story with humor for lagniappe. “The Tempting of Tavernake,” by E. Phillips Oppenheim (Little-Brown); “The Court of St. Simon,” by Anthony Partridge (Little-Brown); “Swords Reluctant,” by Max Pemberton (Dillingham); “Where There’s a Will,” by Mary Roberts Rinehart (Bobbs-Merrill); “The Destroying Angel,” by Louis Joseph Vance (Little-Brown); “The Jingo,” by George Randolph Chester (Bobbs-Merrill)—no need for me to recommend these popular and indefatigable authors. No need and little use, for before I can get through their summer novels, their autumn novels are on the stalls. Well, why not? Speed is their talent, and they use it well. In particular, Mr. Chester and Mrs. Rinehart. Each has a truly staggering ingenuity, and each writes with tongue in cheek. Say what you will against them, they at least help to keep the world awake.

Roger Pocock, in “A Man in the Open” (Bobbs-Merrill), starts out presto with a rattling good story—and then goes aground upon commonplace romance. If the whole were as lively as the first third, it would be excellent stuff indeed. Mr. Pocock has a fresh and vigorous style; he makes his young hero a fellow of flesh and blood. But the personages who enter later do much to destroy the illusion, and so the story ends dolce. But even so it is vastly above the average of the best sellers. Another author who loses his grip as he proceeds is John Masefield, the poet, who tries prose fiction (his first love, I believe) in “Multitude and Solitude” (Kennerley). Here we see how Roger Naldrett, a rising dramatist, abandons letters for bacteriology and goes out to the Congo to battle with the sleeping sickness. Mr. Masefield, I dare say, knows more about literary London than he knows about pathogenic Africa, and so the dramatizing Roger is more interesting than Roger the serum-therapist. But this is not saying that the book is stupid, even in part. Mr. Masefield is too clever a man ever to be stupid. Even at his worst he writes forcefully and entertainingly. There is a constant novelty of phrasing in his sentences. He has invented his own rhetoric.

Lesser things. “The Decision,” by Leon de Tinseau (Dillingham) , a French thriller of orthodox model. “The Mission of Victoria Wilhelmina,” by Jeanne Bartholow Magoun (Huebsch), a sentimental tale of seduction. “Elsie Lindtner, “ by Karin Michaefis Stangeland (Lane), a dull sequel to “The Dangerous Age,” that salty book of yesteryear. “In Search of Arcady,” by Nina Wilcox Putnam (Doubleday-Page) , a tale of lively but virtuous amorous adventure, with an English earl for hero. “Hidden House,” by Amelie Rives (Lippincott), a story of double personality. “The Turnstile,” by A. E. W. Mason (Scribner), goes much further. Here, at least, we have an intelligible moving idea—the idea, to wit, that a man of full strength is drawn irresistibly to his work in the world, whatever his temptation to forswear it for idler and easier things. Harry Rames, returning from three years in the Antarctic, marries a rich wife, goes into Parliament and trims his sails for a long calm. But St. Stephens and Mayfair are not safe ports for sailors—and Harry soon finds it out. The pettiness of politics suffocates him—that endless squabble over small differences, that grasping for mean advantages, that fouling contact with cheap and measly men. His wife, Cynthia, sees and comprehends. He himself is for fighting off the longing within him—“for simple things, not shifts and intrigues and bitterness; the gray mists on glaciers; the day’s journey over the snow, with its wind ridges and its storms; the hard, lean life of it all.” But Cynthia is too brave a soul to accept that sacrifice. Instead, she sends him off to the Antarctic again, and resigns herself to her grass widowhood of three long years. Thus the job engulfs the man. Thus

 

One who hath no pleasure

For to praise the Lord by measure,

He goes into a galleon and serves Him on the sea.

 

“The Actor-Manager,” by Leonard Merrick (Kennerley), is thus introduced and vouched for by William Dean Howells: “I can recall no English novel in which the study of temperament and character is carried farther or deeper, allowing for what the people are.” Obviously, Mr. Howells’s memory must be playing him tricks. Or can it be that he has never read “Vanity Fair,” or “Barry Lyndon,” or “Tom Jones”? Or, to come nearer, “A Mummer’s Wife,” or “Celt and Saxon,”or “Huckleberry Finn”? But let us be amiable and not press the Dean of American Letters too hard! Even Homer nods at times, and what is more to the point, publishers sometimes quote reviews in a way that is embarrassing to the reviewer. A purple passage is carefully dissected from its setting of cold drab and uremic green—and there you are. I myself am sometimes much surprised, on glancing through the book advertisements, to find that I have praised an indifferent novel in terms fit for masterpieces. But here, of course, I make no charge against Mr. Kennerley, a publisher alert and courageous, who deserves all the help he can get from reviewers. No doubt he picked out the most judicious and least passionate strophe in Mr. Howells’s paean of laudation. And even if he didn’t I make no formal complaint, but merely click my tonsils in passing. In the battle between publishers and reviewers the latter have unfair advantages. They may damn a book without rhyme or reason and yet go unwhipped of justice. They may force their way into the game—and forget the kitty entirely. One suffering from poison oak may murder ten poets between lunch time and the green hour, and still draw his constant and lavish wages. Another may boost a bad novel because the author owes him money. A third may have a violent prejudice against one publisher and an equally violent prejudice in favor of a rival—as I, for example, have a prejudice in favor of Mr. Kennerley. Therefore it does not devour me with rage to see a publisher strike back with suave, Italian thrust. On the contrary, I rejoice thereat, as one witnessing righteous doings, even when, as happened lately, an unusually enterprising Barabbas undertakes to improve my English. Give the publishers their revenge! They suffer enough, God wot!

And in the present case, I am glad to report, the book thus deftly varnished and cried up is not without genuine merit. The actor-manager, Royce Oliphant by name, is a fellow who makes a gallant struggle from failure to success, and so it is worthwhile to hear about him. The mistake of his life comes when he marries Blanche Ellerton instead of Alma King. Blanche is not a bad actress, and it is chiefly due to her intriguing that Royce gets the capital for his theater, but her influence, on the whole, is against his artistic growth. She thinks it far better to make money with Sydney Grundy and Louis Napoleon Parker than to lose it with Maurice Maeterlinck. So Royce, starting out as a theatrical revolutionary, gradually finds himself a mere actor-manager, with the box office chain around his neck. But now it is Blanche who saves him, just as it was Blanche who ruined him. She does it by making love to Otho Fairbairn, the rich young man who provided capital for the theater. As the curtain falls she and Otho are preparing to bolt, and it is hinted that Royce will divorce her and marry Alma King, who still yearns to play Hilda Wangel and Lucy Feverel. As novels go in these days, the thing is written incisively and sincerely. But the two men are far less plausible than the two women. Mr. Merrick’s real success in the book, indeed, is Blanche Oliphant, a vivid and ironic piece of portraiture, a lifelike picture of a vain and scheming woman. “The Actor-Manager” is certainly not the right title. It should have been “The Actor-Manager’s Wife”—or “Delilah.”

It is in his short stories, however, and not in his novels that Mr. Merrick shines with purest ray serene. Four or five months ago I told you about the excellent tales in “The Man Who Understood Women.” More of the same sort are in “Whispers About Women” (Kennerley). Some of them are wild extravaganzas of Montmartre, introducing us anew to MM. Gustave Tricotrin, Nicolas Pitou and Thiophile de Fronsac, musketeers of art. Others are ventures into far subtler but no less entertaining writing. For example, “A Very Good Thing for the Girl,” a stage story with bright flashes of character in it as well as a most ingenious plot. For example, “The Bishop’s Comedy,” the tale of a battle of dames for the heart and soul of a sentimental ecclesiastic. For example, “The Favorite Plot” and “Frankenstein II,” two delicious burlesques of the romantic flubdub of the best sellers. In all these short stories Mr. Merrick gives an excellent account of himself. I do not say that they are Great Fiction; I do not mention them in the same breath with “Youth” and “Heart of Darkness,” nor even with “Object: Matrimony,” “The Taking of Lungtungpen” and “The Luck of Roaring Camp.” But nearly every one of them has its touch of sagacious observation, its sharp sting of satire; and all of them are wholly amusing. If you enjoyed the late O. Henry when he was farthest from the comic supplements, you will surely delight in them.

What has become, by the way, of the theory that short stories in book form do not pay? Here, besides Mr. Merrick’s book, are no less than ten volumes of them—and every one in the costly, chromatic vestments of a best seller. The best of the lot, perhaps, is that bearing the arresting title of “It” (Scribner). It is by Gouvemeur Morris, a fabler familiar to all readers of the magazines, and it contains a round dozen stories. How near Mr. Morris comes to really distinguished work! And how infallibly he falls an inch short! A man of humor and imagination, a master of all the lesser tricks of his trade, a journeyman with a dash of something more, he yet fails to get any genuine grip into his work. No doubt his prodigal scattering of forces is chiefly to blame. He tries to write all sorts of stories—O. Henry stories, Richard Harding Davis stories, South Sea stories, stories of half a dozen other standard models. The result is a sort of brummagem facility, an air of respectable second best. The people in these tales belong nine-tenths to current fiction and only one-tenth to life. They are the shadows of shadows. Some day, perhaps, after he has made a fortune manufacturing such trade goods for the magazines, Mr. Morris will sit him down and write a few stories to please himself, putting his own firsthand observation of human existence into them and for getting all about the fashionable models. When he does so, I am convinced they will be short stories worth reading.

Another assiduous hired man of the editors is Jack London, who offers eight orthodox South Sea tales in “A Son of the Sun” (Doubleday-Page). Sound, workmanlike stuff, not without its occasional ingenuity, its personal touch. An honest day’s labor for an honest day’s pay. But as well hunt for enthusiasm in it as seek modesty in an actor. It will never enter the gates with “The Call of the Wild” and the other early London stories. It is the work, not of London the artist, but of London the successful fictioneer. Such merchandise, I dare say, sells like hot cakes. Editors cry for it. Readers bolt it and bawl for more. But it will be dead by Wednesday a week and forgotten by the following Friday. “The Arm Chair at the Inn,” by P. Hopkinson Smith (Scribner), may last a fortnight longer, but I doubt it. Here we have a series of anecdotes strung loosely upon a thread of sentimental narrative. I say anecdotes and not short stories, for so most of them are. What is more, they are not anecdotes of the first quality, nor are they told with noticeable skill If the book, indeed, has any excuse at all, it must be the excuse of innocuousness and good intentions. Say that it is genial, refined, harmless, and you have said your best.

More short stories. “A Little Book of Christmas,” by John Kendrick Bangs (Little-Brown), four Christmas tales with verses between. All four are variations upon familiar Christmas themes. In one we see how the materialistic and bilious Mr. Hetherington is converted to a belief in Santa Claus. In another we weep again over the rich little boy who has a ton of toys and no one to love him. And so on, and so on. After all, there is only one workable plot for a Christmas story. Show a marble heart dissolving in tears—and you have it. Dickens gave out the tune in “A Christmas Carol,” and no man since then has done more than transpose it into new keys. Which recalls the fact that the best Christmas story of all the late boilings is “The Story of the Three Wise Men,” by William J. Locke, published two or three years ago. (Have I quoted the title aright? Maybe not. But your bookseller will know it.) And the second best, unless I err, is “Mr. Payson’s Satirical Christmas,” by George Ade, one of the thirty-five stories in a book called “In Babel,” published in 1903. Very few readers seem to have dipped into “In Babel”—Ade’s fame rests almost wholly upon his “Fables in Slang.” Well, far be it from me to decry those fables. More than one of them, I think, is worthy to be set beside Mark Twain’s sketches and “The Book of Snobs.”

But let us finish the short stories. “The Bachelor Dinner,” by Olive M. Briggs (Scribner), contains ten stories, bound together with banal recitative. Better stuff in “The Garden of Indra,” by Michael White (Duffield). Mr. White writes of India, its scandals and its mysteries, but he makes no effort whatever to imitate Kipling, and so his stories have an air of freshness and novelty. Finally, in “The Apaches of New York,” by Alfred Henry Lewis (Dillingham), we are among thieves, gunmen, bartenders and harlots, an unpleasant but far from inhuman or unamusing company. I venture to say that Mr. Lewis gives reasonably accurate pictures of these ladies and gentlemen. At all events, he discusses them with a friendly humor which indicates more than a second hand acquaintance, and their peculiar hyperboles and synecdoches flow from his pen with great fluency.

This Mr. Lewis, by the way, is one of the few American writers of today with any feeling for style. He writes as no other man writes, in a complex, four-cornered fashion. He runs much to inversions, archaisms, anacoluthons, novelties in figure and phrase. He knows how to build up an effective climax. He is full of surprising epithets, odd bits of slang, the hot juices of irony. Altogether, an original and enterprising fellow, who writes in his own way, disdaining the customary rubber stamps of metaphor, and gets very good effects thereby.

(Source: Hathitrust.org, https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=njp.32101076380441;view=1up;seq=535)