Oyez! Oyez! All Ye Who Read Books!

H.L. Mencken

The Smart Set/December, 1908

IN the practice of the gentlemanly art of literary criticism it is well to be careful about calling names. One’s first impulse, on coming to the end of many an elegantly bound romance, is to write, “This author is an ass,” and let it go at that, but the laws of etiquette and libel make necessary far more subtle and circuitous conveyance of the idea. This, I suppose, explains the occasional verbosity of the current reviews. They are long and indirect, not because the average journeyman critic lacks the science of terse utterance, but because he is reluctant to employ it.

Whether his desire be to denounce without mercy or to praise without stint, the same fear of the short, unequivocal word hangs over him like a pall. On the one hand, a host of terms that seem peculiarly appropriate and apposite in writing of certain current novels and their authors—such as “shoemaker,” “mutt,” “fake,” “bunk,” “lunatic” and “garbage,” for example—are barred from his lexicon; and on the other hand he must be wary and chary of the word “genius.” Call any living writer genius, and straightway Andrew Lang sets up a laugh, just as everyone else in the world would laugh if the term were ever applied to Andrew himself.

“A genius?” he cackles. “Go to! Who ever heard of a genius in a stovepipe hat? The novelists of today may be men of talent (never having read their books, I can’t be certain about that), but there are no geniuses among them. Of that clan, Sir Walter was the last!”

And so Andrew fills his column in the London Morning Post (that chaste journal whose chief item of news each morning, is: “Sarah, the wife of Sir William Smith, Bart., of a son”) and earns his frugal haggis.

Nevertheless, notwithstanding, despite and in the face of which, as the barristers say, I cling to the notion that more than one man of genius is engaged in literary endeavor today. As exhibit number one, I offer Dr. Samuel Langhorne Clemens, author of “Huckleberry Finn,” the greatest novel yet written by an American. (Witnesses: Sir Walter Besant, et al.) As exhibit number two, I offer the man who wrote “A Wife Without a Smile”; as number three, the author of “Heimat”; as number four, George B. Shaw, of Ireland; as number five, Gerhart Hauptmann; as number six—but I had better jump ahead to fifteenthly, and so come, without further delay, to the gentleman whose praises I presume to sing today. His name is Joseph Conrad Korzeniowski, and his latest book is “THE POINT OF HONOR.” (McClure, $1.50.)

Mr. Korzeniowski is a Pole by birth, though at present resident in England, and he was well on toward his majority before he learned to speak the English language. Mr. Korzeniowski is a mariner by trade—“Master in the Merchant Service,” as “Who’s Who” puts it—and he was thirty-eight years old, with hands gnarled by hard work and skin roughened by the sea, before it occurred to him to write. It thus appears that his nomination as a man of genius in the literary way involves a triple violation of the league rules, for he is still very much alive, and his log-book shows that he neither devoured “Paradise Lost” and “The Spectator” at six nor composed elegies at nine. Instead of acquiring the art of writing English in his early nonage, unconsciously and by osmosis, as a Georgian acquires his Democracy, Mr. Korzeniowski tackled it as grown man. Instead of being born with complete and unerring knowledge of men and their minds, as every union genius should be, he gathered his store of facts painfully and slowly, by sailing up and down the Seven Seas in sailing ships and steam cargo tanks, observing a multitude of men of many diverse races, in many a godless port, at their love-making, their swindling, their ad venturing and their dying.

It was in 1894 that he began to write, and in order that his public might not mistake him for a Socialist or a piano player, he dropped his Slav patronymic and subscribed himself Joseph Conrad. Since then he has written thirteen books, including two in collaboration with F. M. Hueffer. The two half Hueffer volumes rise to no greater heights than those scaled often and easily by Henry James and William Dean Howells, but in the eleven which belong to Conrad alone there are tales which come dangerously near being unique in English literature. Among them are the stories called “Youth,” “Falk,” “Heart of Darkness,” “Typhoon” and “Nostromo”—three of magazine length, one novelette and one romance of more than six hundred pages. I have read these things over and over again, and with each reading has come a more and more bewildering sense of their perfect form, their gorgeous color, their sheer artistry. If there is a better story in the world today than “Youth,” old or new, grave or gay, in any living or dead language, I will cheerfully undertake the study of that language on receipt of the news, no matter how numerous its cases. And if there is any other storyteller on earth today who thinks that he could have written “Youth”—or “Heart of Darkness” or “Falk”—well, I shall be glad to listen to him, but he will have to be powerfully eloquent to get my money.

“THE POINT OF HONOR” is not one of the best of Conrad’s stories, and there may be some ground for arguing that it is not a work of genius at all, but all the same it contains more than one page that only a master hand could write. Underlying it lies the idea that runs from Conrad’s first page to his last—the idea of the fortuitousness, the vagueness, the meaninglessness of circumstance and life. We may describe an event, but we can never hope to explain it; the mystery of birth, the fact of death, the infinite chains of causation which lead man to choose this woman for his wife and that color for his necktie; which make him a fat man in an alpaca coat poring over a ledger in a stuffy office, or a thin man in a tattered tennis coat, fighting a rhinoceros in some African mudhole—all of these are alike incomprehensible. Falk risks his life’s happiness trying to frame an explanation, and MM. Feraud and D’Hubert, of “THE POINT OF HONOR,” grow old seeking one.

Feraud and D’Hubert are officers of the Grande Armée, and as the story opens they are in garrison at Strasbourg. D’Hubert is a Northerner—tall, blond, impassive. Feraud is from Gascony—black, daring, extravagant in his passions. One day it falls to D’Hubert’s lot to seek out Feraud and demand his presence at headquarters, to answer to some small complaint against him. Feraud, torn from the side of a hospitable hostess, rages riotously and denounces the general for an inhuman martinet. But in this tirade there is no satisfaction, for the general is safely remote and unheeding. So Feraud turns his batteries of abuse upon the stolid D’Hubert.

At first D’Hubert laughs and then he wonders. Is it only Feraud’s excuse of indignation—or is he, perhaps, a lunatic? Suddenly Feraud challenges, and in moment swords are out and blood is flowing. D’Hubert, standing over the prostrate Feraud, racks his brains to discover what it is all about. Why have they fought? What made them enemies? How will the thing be explained to the general—and the army? Who will believe his account of it?

And there we have our story. The explanation, in point of fact, is never forthcoming, for the simple reason that it doesn’t exist. Feraud and D’Hubert fight and fight again, afoot and on horseback, with swords, sabers and pistols, in all the countries of Europe, as lieutenants, again as captains, again as colonels, and in the end as retired brigadiers of the broken and scattered army. A dozen fantastic legends spring up to account for their sanguinary feud. Feraud, called upon to explain it, invents a story more preposterous than any of the others. D’Hubert, pressed to tell, says vaguely but truthfully that it is something that cannot be told. And thus, in the end, they pass out of sight—foemen still, carrying on to the grave their ferocious and incomprehensible enmity.

The hand of Conrad is visible in the structure of this uncommon tale, and it is even more apparent in the telling of it. Believe me, there is art in this story—the art of one of the most remarkable romancers our English tongue has known—whose worst story makes the best of many another man seem puny.

Two books of philosophy come next on the list. The first is “THE MAKING OF PERSONALITY,” by Bliss Carman (Page, $1.50), and the second is “FIRST AND LAST THINGS,” by H. G. Wells (Putnam’s, $1.50). The philosophy laid down by Mr. Carman may be reduced to the proposition that a healthy, graceful body makes a contented mind. The astute reader will observe that this proposition is nothing more or less than clear-cut and direct reversal of the fundamental thesis of Christian Science, but if it is presumed, therefore, that Mr. Carman is a materialist, the presumption will conflict with a multitude of facts. In truth, his view of human problems is essentially that of the mystic and poet, and despite his ready acceptance of the indubitable maxim that the influence of the liver upon the mind is ever greater than the influence of the mind upon the liver, it is apparent that his acquaintance with physiological psychology is none too profound.

It would take lot of ink and much labor to rescue Mr. Carman from his maze. In the short space available here I can only warn him against too genial view of human progress. He seems to think that sort of calm, optimistic, abstracted contentment, universally diffused, is its object and goal. Nothing could be more fallacious, for it is just this sort of contentment, born of faith and hope, that is today, always has been and ever will be, the worst of all foes that true progress faces. In our weary struggle up from the ape we have need, not of soothing, but of blood and iron. Mr. Carman, preaching his gentleman’s gospel, sounds the praises of dancing, but I rather suspect that the men who do the world’s work have long since discovered that swearing is far more useful.

It is needless to say that Mr. Carman writes with charm and grace. His prose, like his poetry, has music in it, and one is very apt to succumb to its sensuous manner and so accept too easily its debatable matter. The passages in praise of dancing are so well done, indeed, that I, for one, should not be surprised at news that Miss Isadora Duncan had translated them into her subtle language of mobile curves and Sapphic pigeon-wings.
Mr. Wells’s book comes upon the heels of a cablegram announcing his withdrawal from the Fabian Society, and from the book one may deduce an explanation of the withdrawal.

Here, in brief, we have the private and personal confession of faith of a Socialist whose ardor has begun to cool. In theory Mr. Wells may still believe in human brotherhood, but in practice he puts it very far in the future. Like all other dreamers, when the facts of life begin to press upon him he constructs a number of fine quibbles and subterfuges to ease the agony of his soul. In the face of an obtuse populace what is the Socialist of today to do?

Here is Mr. Wells’s answer:

“Do not steal. Do not defraud. Do not aspire to the accumulation of tainted millions. But guard your dollars well and try to get as many of them as you can. Look upon your bank account, not as your private property, but as part of the public funds, to be taken over by the State at the Socialist millennium. Meanwhile enjoy yourself. If the millennium never comes—well, you have done your best.”

I am not quoting Mr. Wells literally, but this seems to me to be fair interpretation of his remarks on pages 160 and 161 of his book.

Luckily, he mentions Socialism very seldom in the course of his three hundred or more pages, and when he is off the subject his philosophy is most reasonable and interesting. If more men of his originality and ability could be induced to lay bare their thoughts in this manner, we would soon accumulate literature of real philosophy.

“Who says the essay is dead?” With this sentence every third review of a new book by Miss Agnes Repplier begins. It has become sort of literary Kyrie eleison—eternally introductory and perpetually apposite. The latest Repplier book, “A HAPPY HALF CENTURY” (Houghton-Mifflin, $1.10), calls it up again, for here we have essays that the old masters of the craft might have envied.

The “half-century” of the title refers to no span in Miss Repplier’s own existence, but to the fifty years between 1775 and 1825. During this pallid time all the modern virtues were invented and all the ancient ones were reénacted. The passion of love, frozen in the cold blasts of propriety, was turned into “affection” and “esteem”; appetites gave way to “principles,” women became “females,” legs became “limbs,” and the British “lady novelist,” new born and yet a nine days’ wonder, evolved for all time the magnificent moral and physiological maxim that there is a. vacuum below the human diaphragm.

This age is of vast interest to all of us today, for the reason that we are still in process of leaving it. Hannah More, alas! has passed to her reward, but we yet have our Ella Wheeler Wilcox to counsel us. Gone are the cardboard ornaments and herbariums of 1810, but in their room are the upright pianos, Brussels carpets and ash receivers made of cigar bands of today. Forgotten, perhaps, are the fair authors of “The Elements of Morality” and “Letters on the Improvement of the Mind,” but Anthony Comstock, Governor Hughes and the Reverend Wilbur F. Crafts are yet alive and kicking. And so it is a task at once agreeable and edifying to read Miss Repplier’s charming essays.

The obvious comparison with “The Four Georges” will not down. In “A HAPPY HALF-CENTURY” you will find the same bitter honesty and the same bitter wit, not to mention the same happy faculty for turning dead names into living beings. There is, too, some flavor of Thackeray’s genial worldliness, of his jovial sacrilege, of his toleration and his broad and human philosophy. Reading these delightful dissertations one rounds up, now and then, with a start—and stands aghast before the fact that they were written by a maiden lady in Philadelphia.

The newspaper reviewers, I fear, have been rather unjust to young Mr. Joseph Medill Patterson, author of “A LITTLE BROTHER OF THE RICH” (Reilly-Britton, $1. 50) Several years ago I read a brief composition by this gentleman, entitled “What Is Money?” and have since preserved it in my literary archives as an example of thoroughly expressive and excellent English. Therefore it gave me disquiet to learn (via the reviewers aforesaid) that his book was a flaming Socialist harangue with incidental indecencies, for Socialism makes hard reading, and even indecencies can do little to relieve its gloom.

Happily, the book itself gives the lie to these orthodox and virtuous critics. The author is in deadly earnest, and more than once one gets the impression that his own story horrifies him, but in no place does he preach, and nowhere is his frankness disgusting. He is trying to tell the story of a dozen worthless men and a dozen worse women, and he does it in straightforward, ingenuous manner, without too great a stretching of probability and without too finicky a restraint. If it be urged that his people are not typical of New York society, it may be answered quite justly that he makes no such claim for them. All he seeks to show is that there are men in New York—he does not say how many—who divide their time between gambling for money and spending their winnings on women, and women who judge each new man by the amount of money he has to spend. If you doubt that this is true, go ask some taxi cab chauffeur or headwaiter along Broadway.

Mr. Patterson’s purpose, of course, is to demonstrate the demoralizing influence of money. To this thesis two objections may be offered, the first being that it is admitted by all, and so needs no demonstration, and the second being that it is not true. In his ready acceptance of its verity lies the proof of his Socialistic tendencies, for Socialism, when all is said and done, is nothing more than the theory that the slave is always more virtuous than his master. In other words, the Socialists hold that the slave’s yearning to rise is, in some mysterious and recondite way, more pleasing to a just God than the master’s yearning to stay up, and that this superiority in yearning breeds general superiority in all other ways. Two or three years of experience as police reporter would convince any intelligent Socialist that all this is foolishness. As a matter of fact, the average poor man is just as covetous, just as bestial, just as lecherous and just as hypocritical as the average millionaire. The only difference between them is that the poor man beats his wife and belongs to a lodge. Mr. Patterson’s earnestness often makes his writing too fluent and too easy, and now and then the rank miasma of Methodist conscience seems to hang over his pages, but he is far from a bungler. In more than one scene, indeed, he reveals surprising skill.

“THE MAN WHO ENDED WAR,” by Hollis Godfrey (Little-Brown, $1.50), is a tale of scientific marvels a la Edgar Allan Poe and Jules Verne. The mysterious hero, desiring to make war impossible, declares world-war of his own upon all battleships. He begins by destroying one and ends with two whole fleets. The trick is done, it would seem, with some sort of wireless vitriol, which has the power of reducing nickel steel to empty gas. Mr. Godfrey’s characters are even more wooden than Verne’s, and his style is even more artificial than Poe’s. The best way to enjoy his book is to lend it to some friend, and then have him tell you the story. It is told so badly by the author that in reading it you are apt to miss its thrills.

At the very opposite pole is “THE RIGHT MAN,” by Brian Hooker (Bobbs Merrill, $1.25). Here we have a fantastic, impossible story, told with such resource and spirit that it seems almost true. An American girl with amber hair, warm brown skin and indolent lips (I am quoting the author) sets out for Europe, with her fiancé (a millionaire) to bear her company, and her aunt to keep her conscience. On the ship she meets an American fiddler and at Boulogne-sur-Mer he drags her ashore and marries her. The tale of his cyclonic wooing is an excellent one, with fiddling and fisticuffs hopelessly intermingled, and Mr. Hooker does full justice to it. On one page, true enough, he says that his heroine “was somehow ultimate,” and you begin to grow alarmed, but this henry-jacobin mood is but a passing madness, and a few pages further on he is down to earth again.

Two books by Miss Anne Warner reveal a not inconsiderable talent, but one gets from them, somehow, that Miss Warner would be benefited if publishers were less eager to print her compositions. One of them, “THE PANTHER” (Small-Maynard, $1.25), is a natural child of Kipling’s “They.” That is to say, it is a rather far-fetched parable, whose precise meaning is in doubt. My first objection to this book lies in the suspicion that its meaning, on being revealed, will add nothing to the sum of human knowledge. My second objection lies in the fact that the work is written in a style that must more than once induce snickers in any human being more than eighteen inches in waist-diameter. “He took her hand, and the iron of his eyes hammered against her own.” This may seem exceedingly poetical to a matinée girl, but to me it seemeth not so.

Miss Warner’s second book, “AN ORIGINAL GENTLEMAN” (Little-Brown, $1.50), is made up of a novelette and twenty-one short stories. The novelette has humor and briskness, and many of the short stories have their moments, too, but the excuse for binding certain others in a book does not appear. On what theory, for example, is the story entitled “Jane and Her Genius” included in this volume? Here we have a brief sketch of the sort that amuses one for a moment in magazine and is then forgotten. It is well done, perhaps, but certainly it would be as absurd to read it a second time as it would be to read a newspaper editorial a second time. In the case of a few great masters we may overlook such things, and in order to have “The Taking of Lungtungpen” ever at hand we may tolerate the banality of “His Majesty the King,” but the rights and privileges of the great masters belong to the great masters only. Miss Warner should be more resolute in the employment of the axe.

The idler in bookshops, alighting upon volume called “I AND MY TRUE LOVE” (Small-Maynard, $1.50), might reasonably take it to be tale of simple sentiment, not unlike “The Reveries of Bachelor,” but, as a matter of fact, it is a bitterly serious psychological study. Naturally enough, I here employ the word “psychological” in its literary, and not in its scholastic sense. At the universities the professors of psychology are divided into two warring camps—the experimentalists of the laboratory and the experimentalists of the haunted house. The former stick pins into babies and time the hiatus between the stick and the yell, while the latter join the Society for Psychical Research and commune with the departed. Outside the breastworks entirely are the literary psychologists. These gentlemen (and ladies, for many of them are fair) devote themselves to the study of human ideas and the analysis of human motives, and, according as they are bold or modest, announce immutable laws or merely note exceptions and problems.

The author of “I AND MY TRUE LOVE” (H. A. Mitchell Keays) steers a rather uncertain middle course. She seems a bit in doubt herself as to the processes whereby her characters arrive at their acts. Her hero, a rich American dramatist, has long since divorced his wife, who has improved her leisure by marrying a millionaire, who, in turn, has gratified all hands by dying. The dramatist’s daughter, as the story opens, is a young woman of nineteen years. She has been kept away from her mother since infancy, and now, lacking a pilot of her own sex, she has begun to labor heavily in the cross swells of love. Suddenly her father determines to send her to her mother. “I do not know what she thinks or what she wants, when it comes to the matter of men,” he writes. “But I think you will know.”

I have a suspicion that the father sees traces of certain unpleasant inherited traits in his daughter, and sends her to her mother in the hope that the latter will serve as sort of horrible example or antidote, on the homeopathic principle of similia similibus curantur. Whatever his aim, his plan seems, at first, to be fatal, for the daughter straightway annexes one of her mother’s middle-aged admirers, becomes engaged to him, learns to smoke cigarettes and to say “Darn,” and in general plays the devil in both households. But by and by this riotous carnival of naughtiness begins to engender the inevitable reaction, and when fair young lover, forgotten amid the din, opportunely reappears the maid falls into his arms. And then it is the turn of the mother to realize the folly of polyandry. “I have loved you always,” she says, and her husband emeritus (the phrase is the author’s) sees “tears in her eyes.” A happy but puzzling ending!

Marion Crawford’s new novel, “THE DIVA’S RUBY” (Macmillan, $1.50), is—well, simply Marion Crawford’s new novel. Like the author of “Lady Audley’s Secret,” Mr. Crawford is partial to sequels, and this new book is one. It is, in truth, double one, for it completes a trilogy begun with “The Prima Donna” and continued with “Fair Margaret.” As the final curtain falls the fascinating songstress-heroine reaches her just reward in love and opulence. To show the richness of this reward, one need only note that among her wedding presents are a house in New York, fronting Central Park; “two luxurious private cars of entirely different patterns, one for America and one for Europe,” and a ruby worth, at the current rate of exchange, $68,040.

Mr. Crawford’s characters come from the ends of the earth and travel to and from the same remote places. He is never dismayed by change of scene, for to him Constantinople, New York, London and Lhassa are alike familiar.

(Source: Google News, “The Smart Set,” http://url.ie/z3ed)

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