Some Novels–And a Good One

H.L. Mencken

The Smart Set/May, 1909

I HAD just finished a week’s exploration of new American novels, hot from the presses in all their gauds of gilt stamping and rainbow illustration. There were ten or a dozen of them, and all but one or two were by women. They dealt with the sufferings and passions of dashing young boys and sweet girls of the utmost niceness, and they were addressed to the sort of folks who hold Charles Klein to be the first of living dramatists and look upon a church wedding as the most delightful of all public exhibitions. Each of the dozen resembled all of the others. In every one the plot was the plot eternal of the American best-seller. In every one the desire of some overdressed young man to acquire a wife was pictured as an important and even remarkable matter.

My week of such fare had come to an end at last, and it was Sunday afternoon—a gloomy, soggy Sunday afternoon. Laboring under a vast depression of spirits, I went to my shelf of immortal vulgarians. But there was no balm in Farquhar, nor yet in Rabelais. Far off a street evangelist preached of Hell. A neighbor’s baby yowled. A bell began to toll in the convent across the street. It grew darker, gloomier, more ghostly. I felt like a wilting violet, a coroner’s jury, a poem by Paul Verlaine. There was nothing to do but stretch out upon the floor, light a cheroot and groan the day away. . .

A glimmer of red caught my eye, and I reached out idly for a little book that crowned a pyramid of big ones. The name of this red book seemed to be “The Power of a Lie,” and the title page said that it had been translated by Jessie Muir from the Norwegian of Johan Bojer. Who was this Mr. Bojer of Norway? Wasn’t there a dramatist of that name—a follower of old Mr. Ibsen? Or maybe he was a critic? Somehow, the name called up a wavering, nebulous sort of memory of a play, a book, an article, a paragraph in a bibliography. No doubt the Gyldendal catalogue would tell. I was too lazy to get it. I turned to the preface— It was by Hall Caine! I skipped it . . .

Part I. Chapter I. “The night was falling as Knut Norby drove homeward in his sledge . . .”
Two hours later I put down one of the most original stories I have ever read—one of the most striking, real, interesting, impressive, convincing. Here was a novelist who had cast aside entirely all of the customary materials and machinery of prose fiction. The handsome young lovers of the American novel were not in his book. The tortured married folks, the middle-aged Camilles, the dress-suited Romeos of the modern British novel were absent, too. The “eternal triangle” of the French novel was flattened out to a straight line. Bojer and the sexual obsession were strangers. The things that interested him most in human life were not those elemental emotions which have their origin in physiological processes, but those higher and more elusive emotions which arise out of ideas. He asked of a given man, not, how did he win his wife, and how does he hold her? but, what is his rating as an individual and how does he maintain it?

The central figure in “The Power of a Lie” (Kennerley, $1.50) is Knut Norby, a Norwegian nabob of a variety by no means confined to Norway. He is, indeed, the archetype of the Prominent Citizen. He is richer than the average man of his neighborhood, and so he is supposed to be wiser and more virtuous, too. He sits upon committees, he is a trustee of estates and his opinion is sought and heeded whenever a mayor is to be elected, a road to be opened or a visiting dignitary to be entertained. He knows how to make a good speech and he is in great demand as an honorary pallbearer. His charities are far from secret, perhaps, but it cannot be said that they are mean. He is, in a word, plainly above the common level, and he knows it.

Such a man is Knut Norby. Of a very different type is Henry Wangen. Henry, it must be admitted, has more brains than Knut, and vastly more imagination, but the one thing that he lacks sadly is Knut’s chief stock in trade, and that thing is respectability. His father, long since dead, was a careless man with other folks’ money, and it is easy to argue that the son, if he ever had to face the same temptation, would show the same weakness. But despite this heavy handicap Henry manages to get on in the world. He floats small stock companies, he introduces new industries into the neighborhood and he makes friends with the toilers by reducing their hours of labor. People begin to say that he will be rich some day, and that he will end by cutting a figure in politics. Even old Knut Norby, his suspicions sunk into a smoldering, ineffective sort of jealousy, succumbs to Henry’s blandishments and goes on his notes of hand as endorser for a good round sum.

Then, with scarcely a moment’s warning, comes the deluge. A small difficulty causes gossip, gossip causes a panic—and Henry tries in vain to stem the tide. He commandeers and sacrifices his wife’s money, his father-in-law’s money. But it is too late. A horde of creditors come galloping on; the old prophets of disaster and felony proceed from whispers to howls. Henry goes to the wall—and Knut is on his paper for that good round sum.

It is at this point that the action of Bojer’s story properly begins. We see Knut face to face with a situation that is doubly disconcerting, for not only is his money in dire peril, but also his reputation for omniscience. People are wondering now how anyone could ever have trusted Henry. That Knut the wise is actually on his list of victims seems preposterous—even impossible. No doubt that so-called endorsement was forged by Henry himself . . .

Knut is ashamed, at first, to grasp at this suggestion. But it presents itself to him constantly and insistently, and while he is trying to fight it off his silence begins to give it authenticity. The only man, save Henry, who saw him sign his name is dead—and Henry’s unsupported word is worth less than nothing. Why not boldly deny the endorsement—and let Henry get out of his mess as best he can? For that matter, why not help the rascal on to prison? He deserves a year or so there on general principles. He has disorganized business, inflamed the workingmen, ruined a hundred small investors and got the whole neighborhood into a turmoil. Let him pay for his bumptiousness and serve as a warning to others.

So Knut makes oath that he didn’t sign Henry’s note, and Henry is put upon his trial for forgery. There are folks who believe him innocent—one of them is Knut’s own son—and some even venture to go upon the stand for him; but Knut’s vast respectability is sufficient answer to these sinister slanders. And then poor Henry, facing certain conviction, grasps foolishly at a straw. He attempts to forge evidence in his own favor. The jury laughs at him, and his condemnation follows as a matter of course. Two weeks after he begins serving his sentence the principal citizens of the neighborhood, burying all party differences, give Knut Norby a solemn public dinner—to celebrate his triumphant escape from the villain’s clutches.

Hall Caine, in the course of his rather patronizing preface to Miss Muir’s translation, objects to the book on the ground that it is immoral. It seems to teach, he says, that “the presiding power in the world is not only not God, but the devil.” This notion is about as pertinent and sound as the kindred idea, so prevalent among shopgirls and telephone operators, that Mr. Caine’s own books are magnificent works of art. As a matter of fact, you may get out of this little Norwegian masterpiece, if you demand a moral in every book you read, the most awful and portentous warning ever put into words; and it is this: Judge not, that ye be not judged! But Bojer, I believe, had no intention of writing a tract when he set out to reduce the “power of a lie” to words. His purpose, I take it, was that of every other true artist: to draw the thing as he saw it for the god of things as they are—that and nothing more.

My rough outline gives but a faint picture of the little book’s vigor and reality. Knut Norby is not merely a successful perjurer. He accepts the homage of his fellows at the end, not because he is dead to all decency, but because he has begun to believe in his own lie. The process whereby he arrives at this self-delusion is described by Bojer with remarkable insight and skill. As a study in the gradual evolution of an idea, I know of nothing to compare with it, saving only, perhaps, that famous analysis by George Moore of Evelyn Innes’s slow submergence into Christian mysticism. And Henry Wangen, also, is no common type. There is nothing in him of the orthodox hero. At the start he is perfectly innocent, but at the close one cannot help feeling that, even though he did not forge Norby’s name, he is far from an honest man. The public view of him has colored his own view of himself. He almost acquiesces in his punishment.

In the form of the book—the arrangement and sequence of its incidents and the management of its dialogue—Bojer displays the sure hand of a master craftsman. Born in 1869, and a figure in Norwegian literature since 1897, he probably has his best work yet to do.

“The Journal of a Neglected Wife,” by Mabel Herbert Urner (Dodge, $1.10), is far from a masterpiece, but it has enough interest and novelty to make it a welcome break in the dull round of commonplace native fiction. I know of at least a dozen American novelists of wide popularity who could not, for all the royalties in Christendom, write so good a book.

The journal is supposed to be that of a somewhat hysterical and romantic woman, verging upon middle age, who discovers evidence that her husband has gone astray. At the start, she has little more than agonizing suspicions, but as time goes on they are supplanted by ample proofs. The obvious thing for a woman to do under such circumstances is to make a row, but this woman is not of the row making sort. She even shrinks from confronting her husband with her discovery, her whole desire is to win him back and let the dead past bury its dead. More than once, indeed, her dominant emotion is not anger, but terror—terror that events will take such a turn that it will be impossible for her, in self-respect, to accept even complete repentance as atonement.

Eventually her pride drives her out of the house, and for a week she hides. Then she comes back again and things are as they were before. Soon, however, there appears a change in her. Once in mortal dread of a climax, of an end of things, she is now suddenly eager that the air be cleared; that there be a frank unmasking on both sides. It comes almost immediately. The Other Woman dies, and her child with her. The husband, crushed, makes confession . . . And the wife forgives.

A critic whom I hold in great respect objects to this book on the ground that the wife is a foolish woman. But this objection, it seems to me, has no validity whatever. Isn’t the foolish woman a type worth investigating? Isn’t it a fact, indeed, that the average woman is often a foolish woman? I suspect that she is, and I suspect, too, that she often endures such agonies as Mrs. Urner has heaped upon her heroine. This woman, let it be remembered, is sufficiently civilized to be introspective. She still loves her husband, and when she discovers that she has lost him, her first thought is to seek within herself the springs of his apostasy. She makes pathetic efforts at self-analysis and self-criticism; she tries the old blandishments and coquetries. And when they fail she is still more than half convinced that the change has been in her rather than in him.

The man we see only through the woman’s eyes, but it is possible, nevertheless, to comprehend him. He is no romantic Don Juan, no thoughtless polygamist, but a man upon whom civilization has fastened the idea of responsibility. Once he has crossed the border—as any man not a saint may cross it tomorrow, if not today— the thing that looms largest in his sight is his duty to the mother of his child. Let the man and the woman be husband and wife, and this feeling of responsibility is universally admitted to be a veritable aristocrat among virtues. But let there be no such tie, and it ceases to exhilarate the moral mind. And yet I have no doubt that it may be just as powerful and serve the high purposes of the human race just as gloriously in the one case as in the other.

This man fancies that he loves the Other Woman, and at the end he is puzzled by the discovery that he also loves his wife. I think that the latter understands him far better than he understands himself. She sees the difference between the two emotions that arise in him—on the one hand his tenderness for the sweetheart of his youth and faithful comrade of his manhood, and on the other hand his tenderness for that Other Woman whose claims upon him, however slight they may be otherwise, find almost irresistible power in the fact that her blood will flow in the veins of his son.

Mrs. Urner achieves a difficult thing in her book, and that is an air of almost complete illusion. You may find her heroine tiresome and even laughable, but you will seldom find her unreal.

“The Climbing Courvatels,” by Edward W. Townsend (Stokes, $1.25), is an example of an excellent story maimed in the telling. The Courvatels, otherwise Dick and Betty Courtney, are a pair of Yankee vaudevillains who lead a double life. At two performances a day they divert the great masses of the plain people with sleight of hand and feats of white magic, and in the intervals they climb socially. It is not until they are at the top of the fashionable tree that Mr. and Mrs. Courtney are discovered to be identical with M. et Mme. Courvatel.

Then everyone is most charitable and forgiving, and there is no distressing slide down again.

An excellent comic idea and one that might have made a memorably amusing book. Mr. Townsend, unfortunately, lacks the Gallic resourcefulness and lightness of touch which such a story needs. Where there should be the delicate humor of cross-purpose and situation, he puts his trust in the heavy, machine-made humor of slang. Even this slang, of course, cannot utterly spoil so good a farce, and at its worst it is certainly far from dull. But just suppose Mr. Townsend had been able to write it as a Frenchman would have written it!

A number of novels planned to rescue the world from its sinful ways are on the spring list. One of them, “Priests of Progress,” by G. Colmore (Dodge, $1.50), is a wooden and rather disagreeable argument against vivisection. The author is in deadly earnest, and so his pages are besprinkled with footnotes and references which recall the (Mark, vi, 22) and (Genesis, xx, 16) of the old-time Sunday school books. The result is that his evidence impedes and demoralizes his story and his story dilutes his evidence. Had his whole argument been cast in the frankly dialectic, instead of in the fictional form, the earnest vivisectionist, I have no doubt, would have been better pleased, and the ordinary, barbarian reader of delicate stomach would have been warned off more humanely. As it is, this apathetic barbarian will probably shudder now and then as he reads the book—and lay it down at the end with no appreciable decline in his unspeakable determination to absorb antitoxin as usual the next time he has diphtheria. The antivivisectionists write their ghastly books and fling their ghastly anathemas— but the world goes marching on. Five hundred years from now it will look back upon them with the same incredulous wonder with which it now regards the medieval bishops who called down curses upon poor old Andreas Vesalius.

In “The Burnt Offering” (Broadway Pub. Co., $1.50), Edith Nicholl Ellison undertakes to wage a literary jihad upon the marriage of consumptives. In the hands of a Zola the story that she tells might have become a moving picture of horror, but as it is, it seldom rises above a sort of stupid unpleasantness. Miss Ellison lacks invention and imagination, and her call to write, I fear, is a false alarm. More than once her story ceases altogether to be a story and becomes a mere tract.

“Out of the Dump,” by Mary E. Marcy (Kerr, 50 cents), is a modest little book of Chicago slum stories. Miss Marcy is a Socialist and, like all others of that fantastic persuasion, she is unable to forget the fact, even when engaged in the engrossing art of literary endeavor.

But notwithstanding and in spite of their propagandist color, her stories have interest, reality and no little artistic value. She knows how to achieve atmosphere, and she knows how to give rotundity to her characters. Someday, no doubt, she will write a full length novel. When she does, I venture to predict, it will be a novel well worth reading.

Another earnest little book that gives promise of better things is “The Revelation in the Mountain,” by Gertrude Major (Cochrane, $1.00). It is a collection of stories and sketches of Mormon life and it breathes uncompromising hostility to the genial weaknesses of the Saints. But some of the stories are very well done. I know of no writer who has set forth with greater simplicity and effectiveness the poignant tragedy of the Mormon woman’s life.

“Jimbo,” by Algernon Blackwood (Macmillan, $1.25), is a novel and curious study of the mind of a child. A boy of seven, an imaginative, hysterical little fellow, is inoculated with grotesque fancies by his governess. One day while fleeing from hobgoblins he is horned by a cow, and for three hours lies unconscious. The phantoms and visions of these hours make up the body of the story. It is a tale full of Barrie-like fancy and extravaganza, and it does not lack Barrie-like touches of poetry. Decidedly a novelty and well worth reading.

“The Wild Geese,” by Stanley J. Weyman (Doubleday-Page, $1.50), is a romantic novel from the studio of an accomplished but somewhat exhausted workman. The old feeling for the romantic and picturesque is there, and so is the old skill at manufacturing and managing situations of theatrical effectiveness, but one misses the old air of earnestness and reality. Mr. Weyman’s early tales were so well done that they seemed almost true, and one was always convinced that the author, at any rate, believed them. But in this story there is little spontaneity. The characters—half savage Irishmen of the eighteenth century—are vastly less appealing than those famous gentlemen of France, and the love making is not as thrilling as of old. But maybe the lack lies in the reader. The taste for romance withers. The sun do move.

“The House Dignified,” by Lillie Hamilton French (Putnam, $5.00), is an elaborate and\ suggestive treatise upon the design and adornment of human habitations. The book seems to be planned chiefly for those of swollen fortune, but the home builder of more modest means will find many a useful idea in it, and not a few valuable “don’ts.” Some of the pictures of great houses reveal unblushingly and almost indecently the abominable taste of the American millionaire. Here and there, of course, one happens upon an ideally beautiful room—the lower hall in the late William C. Whitney’s town house, for example—but against these are many sad examples of decorative running amuck. One of the pictures, in particular, recalls forcibly the overpowering reception rooms encountered by thrill-seeking American tourists in certain of the more devilish parts of Paris.

The chief impression that one gets from “The Story of My Life,” by Ellen Terry (McClure, $4.00), is this: that one has spent a most agreeable afternoon with a charming woman—not with a public character, but with a delightfully naive and unintellectual woman. Miss Terry’s story, indeed, is not the history of her public triumphs, but the story of her life as a whole, and in that life there has been more of interest off the stage than on.

Miss Terry became the wife, while yet a mere child, of a great English artist, and she has been the intimate friend of many another man and woman of the first consideration; but she seems to have borrowed no solemnity from these pundits. She has been interested, apparently, less in their work than in themselves, and so her accounts of them have to do, not with their theories of life and art, but with their doings in their hours of ease. The result is a book full of human interest. The Henry Irving that we see in it is a man of childish foibles, perhaps, but for all that he is a far more real man than the Irving of the official biographies.

Miss Terry is nearly sixty, but she is still young at heart. When she thinks of Shakespeare, I venture, it is not Hamlet’s soul struggle, but the frock she wore as Ophelia that crowds to the foreground.

Gilbert K. Chesterton, it is plain, is getting on in the world. At the age of thirty-five he is already the Socrates of a busy grove of philosophers, and his recent conversion to Christianity attracted more attention than the yielding up of any other single sinner since Billy Sunday. Now comes a book about him—a genuine, full length biography, bound in scarlet and gold and 266 pages thick. This book, “Gilbert Chesterton: A Criticism” (Lane, $1.50), tells us all that is worth knowing about the man, and not a little that is not worth knowing. We begin with an examination of his family tree and end with a glimpse of him taking his daily—or is it hourly?—pot of sack in Fleet Street. There is a picture showing him as a gawky, cadaverous boy of seventeen, and there are other pictures showing him as he is today— vast, elephantine, almost balloon-like. And besides all these things, there is a most entertaining explanation and defense of his various theories, doctrines and dogmas, and of his vitriolic journalese—the best journalese, it may be said, that any man ever wrote. The book is anonymous, but—well, I have my suspicions. So firm are they, indeed, that I hereby publicly accuse Mr. Chesterton of having written it himself.

Old Jim Case of South Hollow—
by Edward Irving Rice.

(Doubleday-Page, $1.50)
A book of tedious and elemental humor in the b’gosh dialect.

Day Dreams of Greece—
by Charles Wharton Stork.
(Lippincott, 80 cents)
The blank verse of a scholar—careful, fluent, workmanlike, but entirely devoid of inspiration.

Lincoln’s Love Story—
by Eleanor Atkinson.
(Doubleday-Page, $ 1.00)
A successful attempt to give artistic form to the half-forgotten romance of Abraham Lincoln and Ann Rutledge. A little book of charm and permanent value.

Irene Liscomb—
by Mrs. Mary E. Lamb.
(Broadway Pub. Co., $1.50)
A somewhat labored story of the Old South, with foreign travel in place of the customary heroics.

In the Valley of the Shadows—
by Thomas Lee Woolwine.
(Doubleday-Page, $1.00)
A conventional story of a Tennessee feud, with a remarkably fine frontispiece in color.

The Eddyite—
by George W. Louttit.
(Colonial Press, $1.00)
A philippic against Christian Science therapeutics and politics. The cure is worse than the disease.

The Straw—
by Rina Ramsay.
(Macmillan, $1.50)
A brisk and racy story of the English hunting field, with a touch of melodrama. A decidedly good example of its class.

The Web of the Golden Spider—
by F. O. Bartlett.
(Small-Maynard; $1.50)
A romance of the old-fashioned, heroic sort, full of hair-raising perils and whole-souled love making. Mr. Bartlett is a good story teller, and manages his most miraculous incidents with skill and aplomb.

Improper Prue—by Gloria Manning.
(Dodge, $1.50)
A tale of the English fast set, full of devilishness and smart dialogue. In the end virtue triumphs.

The Coming Science—
by Hereward Carrington.
(Small-Maynard, $1.50)
A fair and dignified statement of the things the psychical researchers hope to accomplish by their dalliance with table-rapping spooks. Mr. Carrington is inclined to believe in these spooks, but he has enough common sense to make his book interesting to skeptics as well as to devotees.

Yale Verse, 1898-1908—
Edited by Robert Moses and C. H. P. Thurston.
A collection of graceful stanzas of the sort all of us write when we are young. There is no genius in them, but more than once they show grace and beauty.

Letters of a Japanese Schoolboy—
by Wallace Irwin.
(Doubleday-Page, $1.50)
Amusing comments upon current affairs in a new Nippon-American dialect invented by Mr. Irwin. Hashimura Togo, the philosophical schoolboy, is an unmixed delight.

by A.T. Schofield, M.D.
(Moffat-Yard, 50 cents)
An exceedingly brief treatment of a difficult and abysmal subject. It is well done, so far as it goes, but it leaves much unsaid.

Janet and Her Dear Phoebe—
by Clarissa Dixon.
(Stokes, $1.00)
An uncommonly artistic little story of the comradeship of two children. Full of insight and feeling.

Young Nemesis—
by Frank T. Bullen.
(Dutton, $1.50)
A bully good sea story for boys, with a hero who devotes his life to the merciless extermination of pirates. Its pictures of the sea are perfect, and every healthy boy will find it entrancing.


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