Novels for Hot Afternoons

H.L. Mencken

The Smart Set/July, 1911

ENVY of Johann Strauss & Sons was one of the curses of Richard Wagner’s life. Whenever the strains of a passionate Strauss waltz, bursting from some Tribschen or Bayreuth beer garden, impinged upon his ears he would straightway forget the contrapuntal problem before him and begin to pat juba. And simultaneously there would fall upon him a great melancholy, for he was firmly convinced that he could not write waltzes as the Strausses wrote them. When it came to stupendous music dramas, the Odysseys and Iliads of music, he was entirely at home, and even at the enormously difficult art of wedding march writing he showed a pretty talent and was well aware of it, but whenever his thoughts turned to waltzes he threw up his hands. So he envied the tribe of waltz kings, whose very hearts beat in three-quarter time, and being an honest man, he made no attempt to conceal it.

The joke lies in the fact that Wagner was wrong. His belief that he could not write waltzes was a mere superstition, a fixed delusion, a folie. Had he ever actually tackled the job he would have produced, I am convinced, a score of waltzes as good as “Wiener Blut” or “Kunstler Leben,” and perhaps a masterpiece or two comparable to “Wein, Weib und Gesang” and “Rosen aus den Suden. “ For the great artist is always a sort of nest or telescope of lesser artists. Shakespeare the first rate poet enclosed Shakespeare the second rate poet, and somewhere within that second rate poet, covered by a dozen other shells, was Shakespeare the Bankside hack. So we have today not only the peerless and flawless poetry of the sonnets and of certain parts of “Othello” and “As You Like It,” but also the excellent bad poetry of “Cymbeline” and “King Lear” and the No. 1, hardwood, custom made flubdub of “Romeo and Juliet.” Observe, again, Schiller and Goldsmith. Here were two poets of a high order—and also two accomplished manufacturers of Fleet Street trade goods. To get a bad job done well, indeed, the best way to proceed is to hire a first rate man, for even his worst is always better than a fourth rate man’s best. The most beautiful frescoing ever slapped upon a wall was put there by James McNeill Whistler, a great artist. The best newspaper reporter that ever lived was George W. Steevens—whose training was that of a Macaulay or a Walter Pater. The best comic songs on record were written by a man who also composed a symphony for the Leipzig Gewandhaus and helped to edit the Schubert manuscripts and was a master of the fugue. The best crayon portraits extant are Raphael’s. What a superb super Forbes-Robertson would make!

These lofty thoughts are suggested by a reading of the late David Graham Phillips’s posthumous novel, “The Grain of Dust” (Appleton)—frankly a best seller, but still a best seller which makes all other best sellers pale. Phillips, I believe, was almost a man of genius, and easily the most skillful American novelist of a decade, but within him there also dwelt a fashioner of loud, preposterous fictions for the department stores, and in “The Grain of Dust” it is this sub-Phillips that has the floor. The tale, in its essentials, is a sort of burlesque of its species. The passion of love, which in the average best seller is of say 10,000 horse power, is here shown to be of fully 10,000,000 horse power. The hero, who, by the rules, should just miss a height of seven feet, is here revealed, in A. B. Wenzell’s amusing caricatures, as a man of eight feet three. And the heroine, who should be beautiful enough to send the hero down for a count of seven or eight, here knocks him out so completely that he remains in a state of coma for nearly a year. Altogether, it’s a noble best seller, with enough automobiling and money spending in it to stimulate the most jaded; but it is also something more, for Phillips, as I have said, was a thoroughly accomplished workman, and even when he put on his greasy overalls, spat upon his hands and tackled a dirty job, he could not help doing it with an air. Now and then, in “The Grain of Dust,” you will come upon a passage of acute and illuminating observation; ten times oftener you will come upon passages of vivid and dramatic dialogue. From end to end you will note the absence of “as though,” “he don’t” and all the other familiar stigmata of the Indiana school. If you dislike best sellers you will find this one at least bearable on a lazy afternoon. And if you like them you will find it charming.

Another empty but diverting tale is “Panther’s Cub,” by Agnes and Egerton Castle (Doubleday-Page) , in which the principal characters are an opera singer of the paranoiac sort, her ex-husband, her daughter, her manager and young Lord Desmond Brooke. Fulvia de la Marmora is the name of the opera singer, and her daughter is known as Fifi Lovinski. Fulvia, waxing fat and forty-odd, is smitten by Lord Desmond’s bovine beauty and proceeds to woo him with her roulades, but Desmond, having eyes, prefers Fifi. Not that his intentions are honorable—far from it! It is not, indeed, until he and Fifi arrive at Biddicombe’s Marine Hotel at Dover bound for the Continent upon a morganatic honeymoon, that his conscience suddenly turns upon him and urges him to send for a clergyman. Thus Fifi becomes Lady Desmond Brooke, and her good mamma, Mme. Fulvia de la Marmora, goes to her corner groggy. A somewhat commonplace story—but the Baron Jean de Robecq, Hirsch, impresario and man of the world, saves it. The Castles should devote a whole volume to the Baron. His childhood in the Vienna Judengasse, his transition to New York and fortune, his acquirement of a Belgian pedigree, his curious adventures in matrimony, his dealings with Leopold the Unspeakable—all these events, set forth at length, would keep the sleepiest reader awake.

“A Fair House,” by Hugh de Selincourt (Lane), is a study of that most pathetic and helpless of men, the young widower with a child. John Camden, however, braves it out. He is resolved to be a real father to little Bridget—to give to her upbringing the best that is in him. Unluckily enough, he apparently gets his actual parental technique from the Ladies’ Home Journal, for he undertakes to save poor Bridget from ignorance and prudery in the manner advised by Mr. Bok, and one of the consequences is that she throws herself into the arms of a married and sinful man, thirty years her senior. This ancient, however, stops to think it over, and thinking it over he concludes that it will never, never do. “What can you be to me?” he demands. “My wife? I’m married. My mistress? Seduction’s an ugly word. My literary adviser? Thank you. No, it must end. I’ve made a fool of myself. Scores of women have flung themselves at me. I’ve kept clear of girls till now.” So he sends Bridget home—and soon afterward she is engaged to a nice young fellow named Tommy. An odd story.

Phillips Oppenheim is still hard at it. Before I can get to the end of one of his books another comes down the chute. The latest is “The Moving Finger” (Little-Brown), a sort of Arabian Nights fable of a poor young fellow, Bertran Saton by name, who is staked and given his chance in the world by the eccentric Henry Prestgate Rochester, Esq., J. P., M. P. Just what happens to Bertrand afterward I am not going to tell you. In the first place it would spoil the fun you are sure to get out of reading the story, and in the second place I don’t know, for I haven’t read it myself. Upon “A Soldier of Valley Forge,” by the late R. N. Stephens and G. E. Theodore Roberts (Page), my report must be equally vague. It seems to be a Revolutionary romance, with plenty of fighting in it. “The Path of Glory,” by Paul L. Haworth (Little-Brown), goes back even further —to the French and Indian War and the great doings of General Wolfe. The occasional appearance of such volumes shows that the historical romance, for all the dismal chanting of dirges over its bier, yet has a spark or two of life in it. At any moment it may sit up, blink its eyes and emit the loud whoop of recrudescence.

“Queed,” by Henry Sydnor Harrison (Houghton-Mifflin), is a very frank and also a very excellent imitation of William J. Locke—more excellent, indeed, as an imitation than as a work of art. The outlandish Queed, with his stupendous learning and his amazing naiveté, suggests Septimus and Simon at every turn. Like both of those fantastic fellows, he is a complete stranger in his world, and even when the passion of love mellows and humanizes him and he is dragged into camp by the fair Miss Charlotte Lee Weyland, the dragging seems to be an act of daring exogamy. Mr. Harrison errs more than once on the side of extravagance: Queed becomes a mere marionette, without a toe on the ground. But that the story as a whole is well managed; that, at its worst, it is still immensely amusing; that, for a first novel, it touches a very high mark; that it would be difficult to imagine a more entertaining book for a July afternoon—all of this I admit freely, and even maintain vociferously. A new novelist who begins business by imitating Locke deserves three cheers and a tiger. The great majority of his fellows turn instead to Ouida and Archibald Clavering Gunter.

The merit of ‘”The Married Miss Worth,” by Louise Closser Hale (Harpers), lies in the fact that its pictures of a player’s life “on the road” are alive with the little touches that make for reality. The cheap hotel, the dingy dressing room, the sooty day coach, the dismal station waiting room—the drawing of these scenes is photographic. The reader misses nothing—not even the smells. And yet, for all that Zolaesque honesty, the romance of vagabondage is not overlooked: it remains comprehensible, at the end, that actors should revile their day’s work and yet love it. Specifically, the story deals with the perils which beset a stage couple whose work calls them different ways. Hilda Worth, married to Tom Lane, gladly sacrifices her own fortunes to his, but when the time comes for Tom to pay her back in kind, he essays to do it, not in good gold, but with a vague sort of promissory note. So they drift apart, and Hilda, going her lonely way, is ripe for the philandering J. Fleming Horner’s enchantments. But Tom is too big a man to let her go. He has risked the happiness of both, but he has won. Success crowds upon him as actor and as dramatist, and Hilda, woman-like, finds more joy in it than if it were her own. “I have found my happiness,” she says . . . “but on the other side of the footlights. I’ve dropped my mask forever.” An acute, and no doubt accurate study of the elements which make for marital unhappiness among stage folk. The artistic defect of the story is in the fact that neither Hilda nor Lane is quite typical. Not many actor-husbands ever see their ships come in, and not many actress-wives are ever invited to armchairs on quarter decks. But for all that, you will like “The Married Miss Worth.” It has humor in it and sharp observation, and every one of its personages, great and small, stands out round and alive.

The automobile novel, a new and garish form of fiction, now engages our best seller manufacturers. It was the Williamsons, those industrious Sassenachs, who invented and perfected it. No subsequent maker has added any considerable improvements to their standard model, with its chauffeur who turns out to be a prince in disguise, its refined and brilliant conversation and its general air of what the French call “hig leef.” The aim of the automobile novel is plainly set forth upon the cover of a recent one, “Five Gallons of Gasoline,” by Morris B. Wells (Dodd-Mead), as follows: “This is a book to have at hand when the chaffeur (sic) or someone else is lying on the road under one’s own machine engaged in tinkering; or when one’s machine is temporarily at the repair shop, at so many dollars per day. This is a book that will take the edge off such misfortunes.” A laudable purpose, certainly, but one belonging to psychiatry rather than to literature. However, the present tale seems well designed to meet and fulfill it. No less than 348 pages are laden with the stuff that passes for humor in Puck and Judge, and then, three pages from the end, it is discovered that plain Harvey Biggs is really the Hon. Edward Biggs-Biggsworth, son and heir to the Earl of Brockhurst. A publisher’s note says that “Five Gallons of. Gasoline” was written “by the author whose name appears on the title page in collaboration with a well known writer, who, for reasons connected with the publication of another work entirely his own, did not wish to have his name appear in the present volume.” My first guess is Henry James. My second is William Dean Howells. My third is Edmond Rostand.

In “Stanton Wins,” by Eleanor M. Ingram (Bobbs-Merrill), there is an interesting attempt to adapt one of the standard early Victorian plots to the new automobile novel. The one here used is that which concerns the girl brought up as a boy. Ralph Stanton, a daredevil of the tracks, employs young Jes Floyd as his mechanician, and then, after many adventures in many races, discovers that Jes is really a gal, and a very pretty one at that. Miss Ingram’s experiment is interesting and will doubtless inspire imitation, for many excellent early Victorian plots, such as that of the lost will, that of the changeling and that of the repentant seducer might be automobilized without difficulty; but I am inclined to believe that the standard Williamson plot fits the automobile novel better than any of the old-timers. The difference is that between a new suit of clothes and a suit of hand-me-downs. The one, given a good tailor, clings to every parabola and hyperbola of the figure; the other is sure to bulge where it should hug and hug where it should bulge.

Meanwhile, the Williamsons themselves, having given their great invention to the world, show signs of abandoning it, for in their latest novel, “The Golden Silence” (Doubleday-Page), though the hero is a brother to Lord Northmorland and there is an automobile, the former’s right name is exposed on page 4 and the latter is of no importance whatever. The scenes are laid in Algiers and in the desert beyond, and the story has a fantastic Bagdad flavor. But much better than the story itself are the numerous word pictures of the Saharan landscape, with its shifting lights, its endless emptiness and its impenetrable mystery. The Williamsons have still to prove that they are artists, but it may be freely granted that they are very competent artisans.

The remaining novels, if they are to be mentioned at all, must be mentioned very briefly. “The High Hand,” by Jacques Futrelle (Bobbs-Merrill), tells the breezy story of Jim Warren’s adventures in politics. Jim masters the game and turns its tricks against the gang, which is led by Old Man Tillinghast. Naturally enough, the Old Man’s daughter, Edna by name, falls in love with Jim, and so the Old Man, doubly beset, throws up his hands and Jim is elected governor. “The Haunted Pajamas,” by Francis Perry Elliott (Bobbs-Merrill), is a merry farce which appeared originally in The Smart Set and so I need not describe it. “The Stairway on the Wall,” by Augusta Prescott (Harriman), seems to be a detective story. I don’t quite know; I have been unable to read it. “People of Popham,” by Mary C. E. Wemyss (Houghton-Mifflin), is better stuff—an impressionistic sketch of English village fife, with plenty of wit in it and shrewd observation, not to mention a saving touch of sentiment. “ The Land Claimers,” by John Fleming Wilson (Little Brown), is a tale of chicanery and high endeavor in the Oregon timber country—a first novel of considerable promise. “A Book of Dear Dead Women,” by Edna W. Underwood (Little-Brown), is a collection of nine short stories in the Poe manner, some of which will make you shiver and some of which will make you snicker. “The Consul,” by Richard Harding Davis (Scribner), is a single short story bound in pretty blue boards. Like everything else that Mr. Davis offers it is very workmanlike, very affecting and very improbable. And “Old Reliable,” by Harris Dickson (Bobbs-Merrill), is a mellow character study of the Southern darkey—not the soaring, money grubbing, platitudinizing Afro-American of Tuskegeean fable, but the lazy, thieving, lying, filthy, good-humored, good-for-nothing “coon” of reality.

Of books designed to penetrate and inflame the mind, as opposed to books designed merely to caress and stupefy it, the dear publishers send me all too few. Bad novels, licentiously bound, arrive by the score, expressage prepaid, but works of devotion and information I must commonly beg, borrow, buy or steal. Here, however, are half a dozen fished up from the torrent of fiction—one telling all that is worth knowing about coal mining, another telling all that is worth knowing about pianos and piano music, a third upon Socialism, a fourth upon Italy, a fifth lambasting the suffragettes, a sixth advocating universal peace.

“A Year in a Coal Mine” (Houghton-Mifflin), is by Joseph Husband, a young Harvardian who went from Cam bridge to the Illinois bituminous belt to learn the secrets of practical mining. Fortune filled his first year with heroic adventures. He saw explosions and a cave-in; he helped to fight a stupendous mine fire; he went down into the gas-filled depths in an oxygen helmet to drag out the dead and dying. All these things he describes simply and clearly in a slim, black volume. There is no apparent striving for dramatic effect, but the drama is there all the same.

Henry Edward Krehbiel, author of “The Pianoforte and Its Music” (Scribner), is more profound but scarcely less interesting. Mr. Krehbiel believes that the pianoforte was invented independently by three men—the Italian Cristofori, the Frenchman Marius and the German Schroter. To establish this theory he goes into a consideration of the instrument’s predecessors, the clavichord and harpsichord; and then, having established it, he proceeds to the piano’s development and to the corresponding development of piano music. At the end comes a chapter on the great virtuosi of the past. Mr. Krehbiel, as always, is full of apposite and entertaining anecdotes, queer odds and ends of learning, penetrating opinions. Every amateur pianist will get pleasure and profit out of his book.

“The Ideal Italian Tour,” by Henry James Forman (Houghton-Mifflin), is a compromise between guide book and traveler’s tale. Mr. Forman carries the reader from Naples to Pompeii, to Capri, to Rome, to Florence, to Pisa, to Venice, to the Lakes, dropping illuminating remarks about hotels, trains and the things worth seeing, but he is never the schoolmaster or the statistician. His book is bound prettily in red leather; there are twenty-four excellent pictures, and a brief bibliography helps the prospective pilgrim to further inquiries. The three remaining tomes I cannot recommend. “The Ladies’ Battle,” by Molly Elliot Seawell (Macmttlan), is an uninspired presentation of the familiar arguments against equal suffrage; “Universal Peace,” by Arthur E. Stilwell (Bankers Pub. Co.), is a tedious and amateurish tract against war, and “The Common Sense of Socialism,” by John Spargo (Kerr),’is an elementary explanation of the Marxian gospel.

It is useless, of course, to argue that Cale Young Rice is no poet, for an impressive seminary of pundits, led by William Dean Howells and James Lane Allen, maintains the contrary with great eloquence; but all the same, I make bold to lay it down that, poet or no poet, Mr. Rice has certainly put precious little poetry into his new book, “The Immortal Lure” (Doubleday-Page). Here we have four one-act plays in the heroic manner, three in English blank verse, usually decasyllabic, and the fourth in a choppy abbreviated measure which seems to have been suggested by the Japanese tanka and haikai. The trouble with Mr. Rice, as I have suggested in the past, is that he lacks an acute sense of rhythm. His lines show no suavity, no music; too often they halt, stumble, blunder, stagger, back and fill.

Let it not be assumed that I am pleading here for mere prettiness. Metres were made for poets and not poets for metres. Shakespeare, when the spirit (or spirits) moved him, harnessed iambi to trochees and clubbed them into wild gallops—but what wrists were on that daring charioteer! They felt every tremor of the plunging steeds; they had strength to keep the chariot on the track; so long as they held the reins the thunder of the hoofbeats never lost its barbaric, pulse stirring rhythm. But Mr. Rice, alas, is no Shakespeare. His horses run away with him, trip one another, go sprawling into the ditch. And so far as I have been able to discover, there is not enough beauty in the thought he has to utter to make one forget the clumsiness of his way of uttering it.

Horace Traubel fills the three hundred and more pages of his “Optimos” (Huebsch) with dishwatery imitations of Walt Whitman, around whom Horace, in Walt’s Camden days, revolved as an humble satellite. All of the faults of the master appear in the disciple. There is the same maudlin affection for the hewer of wood and drawer of water, the same frenzy for repeating banal ideas ad nauseam, the same inability to distinguish between a poem and a stump speech. Old Walt, for all his absurdities, was yet a poet at heart. Whenever he ceased, even for a brief moment, to emit his ethical and sociological rubbish, a strange beauty crept into his lines and his own deep emotion glorified them. But not so with Horace. His strophes have little more poetry in them than so many college yells, and the philosophy they voice is almost as bad as the English in which they are written. The New Thought and the theory of a moral order of the world are here mingled with “It don’t need to be” and “Why shouldn’t I be stuck on myself?” Away with such stuff!

And now for sonnets. Here are 222 of them in four slim volumes—96 by Alanson Tucker Schumann, 26 by Jeanie Oliver Smith, 58 by Ferdinand Earle and 42 by John Myers O’Hara. Of these extremely ardent and copious sonneteers, Mr. O’Hara pleases me best—and by far. His “Pagan Sonnets” (Smith-Sale) are brilliant in coloring, sonorous, earnest and truly lyrical. In particular that one called “The Hushed Gods” is a glowing and beautiful thing. Mr. Earle, it appears, is rather more the sonnetsmith than the sonneteer. His little book (Kennerley) has a preface in which the technical exigencies of sonnet making are discussed, and in the collection following there are several examples of a new sonnet form, the rhymes running thus: a, b, b, b; a, a, a, b; c, d, d, c, c, d. The experiment is interesting, but Mr. Earle is not the man to carry such anarchies to success, for his lines have little music in them and his flights of fancy do not take him far above the commonplace. Mr. Schumann and Miss Smith are sonneteers of even slenderer talent. The former fills a good part of his book, “The Man and the Rose” (Badger) with ballads and rondels of considerable grace and fluency, but his sonnets are fourth rate. Those of Miss Smith belong frankly to the Poet’s Corner.

A paragraph for Mr. Badger’s troupe of lesser bards. At their head stands Helen Gray Cone, whose “Soldiers of the Light” contains at least one sonnet (“The Common Street”) of great merit, and a number of spirited ballads. Good verse is also to be found in the “Aegean Echoes” of Helen Coale Crew and in the “Orpheus” of Willis Hall Vittum and the “Poems,” of Herbert Muller Hopkins. Mr. Hopkins lately died, and so his volume was put together by his widow. The work was worth doing, for the author, in the midst of much tawdry stuff, wrote more than one song with true music in it.

(Source: Hathitrust.org, https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=njp.32101076380300;view=1up;seq=551)