Novels–The Spring Crop

H.L. Mencken

The Smart Set/May, 1911

On the first page of “The Broad Highway,” by Jeffery Farnol (Little-Brown, $1.35), we discover that young Sir Peter Vibart must wed the Lady Sophia Sefton within one calendar year or lose the fortune of five hundred thousand pounds left by that unpleasant old cannibal, his late uncle. Of course Sir Peter objects most stubbornly; of course he is inveigled by fate into Lady Sophia’s presence; of course he falls madly in love with her, and of course he marries her and annexes the cash.

It is soothing to see this good old plot on its legs again. It was a favorite during the middle Victorian period, and did valiant service not only in prose fiction, but also on the stage. Toward the beginning of the present century, however, it fell into discredit and was heaved into the literary hellbox along with the lost will plot, the stern father plot and the plot of the changelings. Let Mr. Farnol be given praise for rescuing and resuscitating it. He has adorned it in the process with new gauds. He has hung upon it a fabric of astounding incident and brilliant speech. He has written, in brief, a picaresque romance of the first quality, and there is small doubt that it will have as great a success in this fair land of ours as it has already enjoyed in England.

The taste for romance, like the taste for impropriety, is inborn in all normal human beings. Some of us, in the pride of our hearts, try to convince ourselves that we have outgrown it, that daredevil adventure can no longer thrill us, that affecting lovemaking can no longer dim our eyes—but all in vain. The day comes when we turn inevitably from Zola to Dumas, just as the day comes when we turn from Richard Strauss to Johann and from “John Gabriel Borkman” to “Sweet Lavender.” The only difference between man and man is that one pursues the unreal incessantly, while the other chases it only in moments of weakness. Examine, for example, the vaudeville audience. It is made up in part of persons who find joy in vaudeville day in and day out, and in part of persons who like it only when they are sick, miserable, overworked or drunk. Vaudeville is romantic—and no man ever quite rids himself of romance. His head may rule his heart for a week, a month or a year—but on some fatal day or other that head of his will succumb to sorrow, weariness, alcohol, an unbalanced ration, the coo of a baby or the perfume of a woman’s hair, and that heart of his will go upon a debauch straightway.

The most level-headed man is probably benefited by such a spree now and then, and fortunately enough, it is always possible to have it at will. If the natural impulse fails alcohol will do the work very well. I made the discovery years ago that three drinks of rye whiskey would double the pleasure to be got out of “II Trovatore.” Try it yourself. And if “Il Trovatore” is not the bill, try it on “Faust” or “Traviata” or any other such maudlin stuff—or on the plays of Charles Klein or the novels of George Barr McCutcheon or the conversation of your wife. But don’t try it on “Das Rheingold” or Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony or the dramas of August Strindberg or the novels of Henry James! To enjoy such things you must have your wits about you—which is precisely what you must not have about you to enjoy romance. Vaudeville, to a man who is both intelligent and sober, is anguish unspeakable. But vaudeville, to a man who lacks either intelligence or sobriety, permanently or for the moment, is often extremely agreeable. And the same rule covers romantic fiction as well, not to mention the prattle of children, parlor melodrama, politics, homiletics and the (normally) depressing business of making love to a woman.

Curiously enough, the ancient mummy which serves as a plot in “The Broad Highway” is also brought back to life in “The Bolted Door,” by George Gibbs (Appleton, $1.50). In the noon day of good Queen Victoria the name of the hero was always George and that of the heroine Amelia. Mr. Gibbs, with daring originality, has changed these appellations to Brooke and Natalie. He has also made several other improvements, which fact proves that he is no common manufacturer of best sellers. No doubt his story (which is written very plausibly, by the way) will win a succes de department store, and he will be encouraged to continue his adventures in literary paleontology. N. B. The house wherein it all happens is called the Grange. Another sweet memory of the good old Seaside Library!

Three novels which stand above the common level are “Denry the Audacious,” by Arnold Bennett (Dutton $1.50), “The Prodigal Judge,” by Vaughan Kester (Bobbs-Merrill, $1.50), and “The Adventures of a Modest Man,” by Robert W. Chambers (Appleton, $1.50). The Chambers book is a rambling affair, a string of short stories rather than a novel, but it shows humor, vivacity and no little art, and it will serve very well to mitigate the horrors of an American Sunday. Mr. Chambers knows how to write; the trouble with him is that he seldom seems to try. But with “The Adventures of a Modest Man” in hand, let us forgive him for “Ailsa Paige.” Mr. Bennett’s story is another humorous chronicle. The scene is his beloved Five Towns, and the hero is a proletarian who brazens his way to riches and eminence. It is certainly not very profound, but let no one deny that it is genuinely amusing. “The Prodigal Judge” has humor, too, but in the main it is a serious study of that fantastic barbarism which passed for civilization in the slave states of the West in Jackson’s day. In more than one place the author shows his debt to “Huckleberry Finn.” The art of letters would be in better health in these fair United States if more of our native authors followed that incomparable model—or rather, if more of them showed Mr. Kester’s ability to follow it. His book is carefully and honestly done; it is worthy of high praise.

In “A Sinner of Israel,” by Pierre Costello (Lane, $1.50), we follow through some four hundred pages of fine print the story of Ephraim, Baron Solvano, the wealthy Jewish pietist and philanthropist, and of young David Solvano, the son who is not his son. It is not until long after David has married Hannah Woolf, a pretty Jewess, and fallen in love with Candace Leonard, a pretty Christian, that he finds that he is really not a Solvano, nor even a Jew. His mother, it appears, erred. She was Christian born and out of sympathy with Lord Solvano’s religious practices, and so she fell an easy victim to the dashing Ignaz Quesada, man of mystery. Let us now skip about two hundred or so pages. Quesada, it appears, is really the exiled king of Istria, one of those fantastic little Zendas which the modern art of prose fiction has tucked into every nook and corner of Europe. One day he wallops Prince Archelaus, seizes the throne and sends for David, whom he soon openly acknowledges as his son and heir. Miss Leonard conveniently dying, David then sends for Hannah his deserted wife, and so Istria glories in a Jewish crown princess. The Istrians, it appears, are not anti-Semites. It also appears that the author of this tale is not a Zangwill. But he does his best.

“The Justice of the King,” by Hamilton Drummond (Macmillan, $1.20), carries us to the France of Louis XI. Louis is a suspicious, crafty, subterranean fellow, who gets much gloomy entertainment out of the notion that his enemies plan to hack off his head and put the young Dauphin on the throne. So he sends young Stephen La Mothe to Amboise, where the Dauphin is living, to spy around. Stephen’s spying quickly convinces him that such a plot is being hatched, and that the beautiful Ursula de Vesc is at the bottom of it, but just as quickly he falls in love with the said Ursula and cannot find it in his heart to slay her. So here appear the makings of a dashing story—with a happy ending, you may be sure. “Who giveth this woman to this man?” demands the good Father John. “I do,” says Louis XI. Seven years later Stephen is Constable of France.

The scene of “Compensation,” by Anne Warwick (Lane, $1.50), is the Washington of the Roosevelt administration, and we are introduced more than once into the presence of the Colonel himself. But the tale is really far more amatory than political. The Hon. Anthony Steele, Senator from Ohio, has been married to Mrs. Juliet Steele for twelve years when he meets Kathleen Warrens, the debutante daughter of Major Warrens. The Senator and his wife are on excellent terms, but it is seldom indeed that they sit in the twilight holding hands. So the Senator is ripe for Kathleen’s charms, and it is not long before we behold the two in a surreptitious embrace. Then Juliet is thrown from her horse in Rock Creek Park and dies of a “severely crushed” spinal cord, and the reasonable expectation is that the Senator and Kathleen will wed. But not so. The Senator has discovered that his dead wife loved him, and that love of hers, now a ghost, urges him to celibacy. Kathleen in the end becomes the wife of another fellow. As for the Senator, he becomes Secretary of State and plods on toward dismal greatness. A long and in places rather trying tale.

The novelization of plays continues, with Arthur Hornblow leading the charge of novelizers. The latest product of his art is an irritating version of Eugene Walter’s fine play, “The Easiest Way” (Dillingham, $1.50). It is a pity that Mr. Walter has such small respect for the work of his hand that he permits it to be bedizened and degraded in this absurd fashion. Among all the native dramatists now writing for our stage there is none who exceeds him in accuracy of observation and vigor of thought. “The Easiest Way” is the best play he has yet given us. It has been called, indeed, the best play ever written by an American. We should have it in book form, to study at leisure, as we have the plays of every first-class dramatist of Europe. But to encounter it in the hideous shape of a bad novel, with Mr. Walter’s fine dialogue drowned in Mr. Hornblow’s singularly puerile balderdash, can only give pain to every sincere admirer of the author.

To the multitude of books about “Robert Lewis Baltour Stevenson, known as Robert Louis Stevenson, advocate at the Scots bar,” we must now add “With Stevenson in Samoa” by H. J. Moors (Small-Maynard, $1.50). When Stevenson sailed into Apia harbor in December, 1889, upon the little schooner Equator, Mr. Moors was the first resident of the town to greet him, and they remained fast friends until the novelist’s death, five years afterwards. Moors was, and is today, the principal trader of Apia, and it was beneath his hospitable roof that Stevenson, Mrs. Stevenson and Lloyd Osbourne tarried until “Vailima” was reared upon the palm-covered heights of Vaea. Moors, in fact, supplied the money which paid for that famous aerie, lending $12,000 without security and getting back every cent of it. While it was going up, and later on, in its gigantic hall, he and Tusitala swapped yarns of the coral isles, intrigued against the British and German overlords of Samoa and pulled wires for the deposed King Mataafa. In the present volume Stevenson’s political activities are described in detail, and many of the manifestoes, proclamations and other noisy documents in which he had a hand are printed in full. Of greater interest to the lover of his books are the glimpses which Mr. Moors gives of his daily life. We learn that he went barefooted on all possible occasions, that he habitually wore a yachting cap worth twenty-five cents, that he could not abide a stiff collar, that his favorite dish was soup, that he swore fluently and extensively, that “Vailima” cost $12,000, that its annual upkeep cost $6,500, that he wasted $1 ,000 upon a brick chimney, useless in the tropics, that he was a hopeless failure as a planter, that slashing book reviews brought him to the verge of tears, that he was the slave of his women folk, that he believed in ghosts, that he used a Caligraph typewriter, that he possessed when he died, besides his books and furniture, his valuable copyrights and “Vailima,” a personal estate worth exactly $77,625. It is, in brief, an extremely intimate glimpse of a great literary artist that we get in this modest memoir and in consequence it is well worth reading.

The wine of Chestertonian wit begins to lose its headiness and flavor, as all wine must when the seller makes endeavor, with the aid of rain water, to turn a bottle into a butt. Mr. Chesterton started out in life with a set of striking, if invalid, ideas. They were ideas such as no other sane man had publicly maintained, or perhaps even secretly harbored, since the days of Nicholas Chryffs of Kues. Because they had been dead so long, they seemed newborn. Because they were so astoundingly unsound, they carried the queer, emotional conviction of revelations. So the world heard them avidly and called for more. But, alas for Chesterton, he had no more to offer! His whole stock was exhausted before he was halfway through his second book—but he kept on and on and on. He is still printing books today, at intervals of six months—like some faded charmer who continues to smirk at us across the footlights, and rattle her dry bones, and expose her lean calves to the ribaldry of the baldheads, long after her beauty is dead. Not that the Fat Mullah’s latest volume, “Alarms and Discursions” (Dodd-Mead, $1.50) is entirely without savor. Even bad wine, shamelessly diluted, is better than water from the rain spout. Even a faded charmer, long shorn of teeth, eyebrows and hips, may yet wring the willing tear as Marguerite Gautier. But out of Chesterton the old shock of pleasant surprise, the old sting of devilish and delightful heresy, has gone. He needs a holiday, a chance to catch his breath, a rest in some philosophical sanitarium, a course of intellectual wet nursing. Let him put aside his pen for a year or so and renew his stock of ideas—preferably in the moldy tomes of the Thomists, the Scotists and the Ockhamites, where he seems to have got the shopworn stock that he is now trying to sell for the fourteenth time.

Unless my spies bring me false news, Adrian Hoffman Joline is a millionaire—or at any rate he is rich enough to dedicate a distinct and separate pair of galluses to every pair of small clothes in his wardrobe. But for all that opulence, there is the soul of a true booklover in him, and his random essays upon forgotten and half-forgotten makers of books, gathered now and then into stately volumes, are always full of charm. His latest collection, “Edgehill Essays” (Badger, $2.00), contains excellent papers upon Mark Akenside and Francis Jeffrey, the one a poet dead to the world for a hundred years and the other a critic whose fame was long since eclipsed by the greater fame of less earnest but more brilliant men. Added to these papers are two pleasant chapters upon autograph hunting, a vice to which Mr. Joline clings unblushingly, and a number of miscellaneous essays. A book to read at the tranquil end of a busy day. A soothing and amusing volume.


Did Your Child Say This? —

by G. H. Preble. (Luce, 50 cents.)

A book of abounding interest to young mothers and ancient grand-dads. There are numerous blank pages for inscribing the clever wheezes and epigrams of your own progeny.


Great Cities in America —

by Delos F. Wilcox, Ph. D. (Macmillan, $1.25)

A comprehensive study of municipal administration in Washington, New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, St. Louis and Boston, by a distinguished authority.