The Best Novels of the Year

H.L. Mencken

The Smart Set/July, 1909

IF you have room for a dozen novels in your summer luggage, and want to choose them all from the current crop, let them be the following:

“Tono-Bungay,” by H. G. Wells (Duffield, $1.50).
“The Power of a Lie,” by Johan Bojer (Kennerley, $1.50).
“Lewis Rand,” by Mary Johnston (Houghton-Mifflin, $1.50).
“Septimus,” by W. J. Locke (Lane, $1.50).
“9009,” by James Hopper and Fred. R. Bechdolt (McClure, $1.50).
“Fraternity,” by John Galsworthy (Putnam, $1.50).
“The Point of Honor,” by Joseph Conrad (McClure, $1.50).
“The Eternal Boy,” by Owen Johnson (Dodd-Mead, $1.50).
“The Journal of a Neglected Wife,” by Mabel Urner (Dodge, $1.50).
“Dragon’s Blood,” by Henry M. Rideout (Houghton-Mifflin, $1.50).
“Cherub Devine,” by Sewell Ford (Kennerley, $1.50).
“The Man in Lower Ten,” by Mary Rinehart (Bobbs-Merrill, $1.50).

This list, I am well aware, will outrage both the editors of the literary monthlies and the floorwalkers of the book departments. No less than half a dozen rank failures are in it, and no less than a dozen best sellers are not in it. Emerson Hough’s champion of champions, “54-40 or Fight,” is not there. Neither is Dr. Mitchell’s “The Red City.” Neither are the new novels by Robert Hichens, Anthony Hope Hawkins, Thomas Dixon, F. Hopkinson Smith, David Graham Phillips, S. J. Weyman, and Beatrice Harradan. Neither are certain other puffed fictions that ogle you most seductively from the book counters. But if you read the twelve books I have named, you will not miss these absentees. My best bets, I opine, are better books than the best sellers. If they are not, I apologize to all concerned and announce my retirement from the critical turf.

No, the twelve are not set down in the order of their merit, and I am not going to make comparisons. They are too unlike for that. The thing that Wells tries to do in “Tono-Bungay” is infinitely apart from the thing that Locke tries to do in “Septimus,” and yet each book is an excellent performance. Let me point out only this: that my list offers soothing for all degrees and qualities of taste. If your thirst is for comedy, I give you “Cherub Devine” and “The Eternal Boy”—lighthearted farces with a laugh on every page. If you like serious tales—“deep down diving,” as the Germans say, and “mud upbringing”—I give you “9009” and “The Power of a Lie.” If, again, you want romance, there is “Lewis Rand” for you; and if you want riot and carnage, there is “Dragon’sBlood.”

Once more, if your joy is in states of mind rather than in functioning of muscle, there are “Fraternity” and “The Journal of a Neglected Wife.” Finally, if you are of the true cognoscenti and see merit, not in a startling fable, but in the delicate touches of a perfect craftsman, then I give you “The Point of Honor.” But I think you will enjoy all these books, whatever your particular passion. In each the characters are human beings—not fashion plates by Howard Chandler Christy, but human beings.

Four other books came very near getting into my list. One was E. F. Benson’s “The Climber,” a novel of uncommon merit; and the other three were James Branch Cabell’s “Cords of Vanity,” Leonid Andreyev’s “The Seven Who Were Hanged” and Brian Hooker’s “ The Right Man.” But I am not hedging. Every one of the four surpasses the average best seller, but in each there is some serious defect. “Cords of Vanity,” properly speaking, is not a novel at all; and “The Right Man” is so short that it scarcely passes the boundary. In “The Climber” facility often takes the place of insight, and in “ The Seven Who Were Hanged” the closing scenes are almost too horrible for holiday reading. But if you have time and room and appetite for sixteen novels instead of twelve, let the quartet I have named go into your satchel.

Of the above sixteen, all have been reviewed in these pages in past months save “Dragon’s Blood,” “Cherub Devine” and “The Seven Who Were Hanged.” The first named is the most important of these. It is, indeed, a novel of great merit and greater promise. A hundred journeyman fictioneers might have imagined the story it tells, but a distressingly small number, even among the aristocrats of the craft, could have told it so well.

This, as you will observe, is a reversal of the usual order of affairs. Your typical American novelist, particularly if he be as young as Mr. Rideout, starts out with an ingenious and astonishing plot, and ends with a commonplace story. Having worked out no philosophy of life he is unable to interpret his own fable, and so it becomes a mere anecdote. Having no understanding of causes, motives and mental processes, he is unable to see behind the actual acts of his characters, and so they become mere actors. Mr. Rideout is not of that school. He has the larger vision. He sees that an act is of vastly less significance than its cause; that a man cannot be described save in terms of his environment. In a word, he gets beneath the surface of things. His picture is not that of a clawhammer coat making love to a decollete gown, but that of a human being striving against fate.

In its externals, Mr. Rideout’s story is a somewhat noisy melodrama. A half-dozen white men and three women, marooned in a God-forsaken Chinese town, are attacked by fanatics and have to fight their way out. They are of widely varying types. One is a silly American missionary—the cause of all the row. Another is his wife—fat, useless and almost yearning for martyrdom. Another is a stolid trader; another is his dubious wife, and yet another is a British outcast with the morals of a horse thief and the courage of a Hugh de Vermandois. Finally, there is Rudolph Hackh—not the hero of the tale, but its Hamlet.
There are all sorts of turbulent doings. The Chinese advance with stinkpot and cannon and try to explode a mine. There are sorties by night and battles by day; men fall and graves are dug; mysterious messengers come and go; the Hugh de Vermandois sallies forth alone and seeks to penetrate the hostile councils; there is even a preposterous duel. But these things are but incidents in the real story, which has its concern with the soul of Hackh. He goes in a somewhat callow youth, oppressed by romance and ready to follow the skirt of a pretty woman to the devil. He comes out a man, every inch of him, with the poise of maturity and experience. Something of Old China’s immemorial calm has been fastened upon him. His blood is still German, but his philosophy has a flavor of the Chinese.

Mr. Rideout’s methods remind one, more than once, of Joseph Conrad. He has not a little of Conrad’s romanticism, and now and then there is a suggestion of Conrad’s uncanny skill at achieving atmosphere. The China that he draws seems as real as the brooding jungle that swallowed Kaspar Almayer. And his view of the eternal mystery of life is essentially that of the great Anglo-Pole. He has still a long and weary road to travel before he may come to Conrad’s high place, but he is headed in the right direction.

“Cherub Devine,” by Sewell Ford, differs from “Dragon’s Blood” as a waltz by Johann Strauss differs from a waltz by Chopin. It is a farce full of the comic spirit—an extravaganza of the cleanest and lightest sort. It leads nowhere, but one laughs immoderately and is the better for it. In more than one place, indeed, it suggests the Court Theater comedies of Pinero—and when I say that, my masters, I am handing out a foaming beaker of the highest praise I keep on tap.

The hero of the tale is one “Cherub” Devine, a youngster from the West who fights his way up from slavery and achieves millions and a character for eccentricity in Wall Street. One day, in an idle moment, he buys a Long Island estate that he has never seen — and then forgets it. When its existence is recalled to him he runs down for a week end, only to discover that the house is still occupied by the late owners, who refuse to move. The rest of the story is given over to the Cherub’s encounters with these folk, and particularly with the daughter of the house. The humor arises, not so much out of ridiculous situations, as out of the ludicrous conflict of characters. It is humor that is brisk, fresh and never failing. Not for an instant does the story lose its interest and plausibility. Not for an instant does it wobble.

The penning of such tales is not the highest of the arts, perhaps, but when a man has mastered it he is certainly ahead of the second-rate writers of epics.

“The Seven Who Were Hanged,” by Leonid Andreyev, the Russian, is a somewhat gruesome attempt to analyze the fear of death. The seven who await the hangman’s summons are all Russians, but they range in character from a man of education and intelligence to a degraded and apelike peasant, and from a serene woman of middle age to a silly girl. It is impossible, of course, to determine the accuracy of Andreyev’s study, but no one can gainsay its artistry and dramatic effectiveness. It grips your imagination from the first page, and toward the end it makes you shiver in sheer horror. Withal, it has simplicity, clarity and restraint: the sure marks of a master craftsman.

“Someone Pays,” by Noel Barwell (Lane, $1.50), is a tale of seduction, told entirely in the form of letters. There is a gay young English rah-rah boy who writes to his mother, father, sister, aunt, chum and coach; there is a worldly English ecclesiastic who writes to all sorts of persons, from stockbrokers to pious old maids; and there is a little English slavey who writes ungrammatical epistles to her folks at home. There are other correspondents in the tournament, too, and most of them are persons of no little humor and interest. But the story itself is trivial. Its moral (expressed in the title) seems to be that youthful follies are invariably followed by unspeakable suffering. This is a platitude, and like all platitudes it is open to two objections: the first being that it is universally allowed, and so needs no proof, and the second being that it is not true.

Judge Robert Grant’s new novel, “The Chippendales” (Scribners, $1.50), is an elaborate and somewhat fussy study of Boston in transition. On the one hand we have a group of Bostonians of the ancien regime, modestly proud of their unearned increment, impatient of the more vulgar ambitions and holding to the Harvardocentric theory of the universe.

On the other hand we have a pushing young iconoclast from Maine, who sees nothing sacred in the Cambridge elms and has no reverence whatever for family trees. The entry of this coarse fellow into the circle of the Chippendales gives them a shock almost equal to that which would follow the appearance of a column of race-track dope in the Transcript. But Destiny is behind him, and in the end he triumphs. The fair Georgiana Chippendale extends her finger for his nuptial band, and the other Chippendales agree to be agreeable. Even in Boston, it appears, the sun do move.

Judge Grant’s familiarity with Boston ways is indisputable, and so his story is full of verisimilitude and color. But it cannot be said that it shows any feeling for form. It lumbers along, indeed, in a truly Trollopian manner, with the tempo ever largo. At the end of its 602 finely printed pages one feels that one knows Boston, but—well, it has been no royal road to knowledge.

“A Year Out of Life,” by Mary E. Waller (Appleton, $1.50), is a study in feminine folly. The heroine, a young American girl, goes to Germany to live, and after mastering the awful German language asks an eminent German author to let her translate one of his books into English. A correspondence follows and the little American falls in love with her author at long range. One day she casts maiden modesty to the winds and tells him so—and he favors her with a long letter of excellent advice. In the end, nevertheless, he comes near marrying her. How both manage to escape the union makes an unusual, but not very enthralling story. The author has a keen zest for things German, and her descriptions of German life, indoors and out, are full of understanding and charm.

O. Henry (Sidney Porter), author of “Roads of Destiny” (Doubleday-Page, $1.50), is an insoluble riddle. I give him up. Either he is the best story teller in the world today, or the worst. Sometimes I think he is the one and sometimes I am convinced that he is the other.

Maybe he is both.

And why the best? Because no other man now living equals him in the invention of preposterous intrigues and the imagining of fantastic characters. He can borrow an idea from Stevenson—as in the title story of the present book—and give it so many novel and outlandish twists that it becomes absolutely new. He can construct a farce plot that would have sent Offenbach flying to his music paper, as in “Next to Reading Matter”; and he can bring back again, with all its sentimental melodrama, the Golden West of Bret Harte, as in “Friends in San Rosario.” Always his stories have action in them —action and “an air.”

They are full of queer ambuscades and surprises. The end is never visible at the beginning.
And why, being so marvelously ingenious and resourceful, is Mr. Porter also so bad an artist? Chiefly, because his fancy is a bucking bronco without a rider. He has no conception of the value of restraint. He lays on his effects with a shovel. As he writes, innumerable comic ideas occur to him—bizarre phrases, impossible slang, ridiculous collocations—and he slaps them in at once. If they fit, well and good; if not, he uses them all the same. The result is that his characters all speak the same tongue. At the beginning of a story, now and then, he manages to keep them differentiated, but before long they are all spouting Porterese.

Again, this same exuberance leads to a painful piling up of snickers. In “The Discounters of Money,” for example, a capital story is spoiled by too much smartness. There are twenty wheezes to a page. Instead of helping on the tale, they make it bewildering and unreal. You grow interested in a character study—and the author asks you to halt at every third line and marvel at some banal wit from Broadway.

But it is an ungrateful task to point out defects in a writer so amusing as Mr. Porter. At his worst, true enough, he is very, very bad, but at his best he is irresistible. Someday, let us hope, he will acquire resolution enough to stick to the letter of his text, no matter how great the temptation to fly off into literary roulades. Meanwhile, it might benefit him to give a month or two of hard study to a book called “In Babel,” by George Ade—a book containing some of the best comedies in the English language.

Jacques Futrelle’s latest book, entitled “Elusive Isabel” (Bobbs-Merrill, $1.50), is a brisk tale of diplomatic intrigue and adventure in Washington. Mr. Futrelle endeavors, not to explore the human soul, but to tell a story and he does it very well. There is always something doing. Once you are made aware, in the second chapter, of the great Latin alliance against England and the United States, you will read on to the end. And as you proceed you will achieve such a liking for the fair Miss Isabel Thorne that, in the last chapter, the sleuth-hero who carries her off in his automobile will excite your unalloyed envy.

“One Fair Daughter,” by Frederic P. Ladd (Kennerley, $1.50), is a mildly interesting attempt to explore the psychology of love. A beautiful and intellectual woman, married to a rich but yodling German, meets a fascinating young rector, and the two love. To escape her dachshund of a husband, the wife goes upon a holiday trip down Aiken way. The rector follows posthaste and soon the two are tripping the primrose path. It doesn’t take the rector long to decide that preaching is no longer for him; so he returns to New York to resign his pulpit and seek a trade more suitable to a man of his newly acquired sinfulness. While he is away the yodling husband visits his wife, and is accorded a polite if not cordial welcome. When the rector hears of it, he gives the poor girl a sound berating and bids her goodbye. His conception of a love affair, he explains, is indissolubly associated with a notion of monogamy on the part of the woman.

A great many worse ideas than this one have been put into novels by American fictioneers, but Mr. Ladd, unluckily, does not execute nearly so well as he plans. The rector has no little verity, and the wife, particularly toward the end, is depicted with insight, but the mannerchor husband is drawn so grotesquely that he spoils the picture.

Half a dozen books exemplifying or dealing with the art of the theater are on the spring list. The most conspicuous of them is an extraordinarily bulky and weighty volume by W. T. Price called “The Analysis of Play Construction and Dramatic Principle” (Price, $5.00). Here we have more than four hundred large pages of fine print devoted to a demonstration of the thesis that the true dramatist is made and not born. In order to write a good play, says Mr. Price, one must first understand the anatomy and physiology of plays. Not content with merely saying this, Mr. Price proceeds to prove it, and his proof, it must be admitted, is triumphant and well rubbed in. Let the fledgling dramatic genius but read the book, and if it accomplishes nothing else, it will at least cure him of his delusion that the managers who decline his plays do so because they hate all Christians.

Mr. Price’s analysis of the elements which enter into the make-up of a modern drama is elaborately minute, and in the main, entirely accurate. He is disposed perhaps to dwell too much upon manner and too little upon matter, but this fault is inherent in his task. One may reduce all harmony to a book of rules, but it is impossible to teach a tone-deaf man to write a string quartet. In the same way, it is impossible to turn an ass into a Pinero, but, all the same, the ambitious beginner who studies Mr. Price’s book will put it down with a sound knowledge of important matters which, unaided, he might have groped for blindly for years.

“The Faith Healer,” a mystical drama in four acts by William Vaughn Moody, author of “The Great Divide” (Houghton-Mifflin, $1.00), comes next. This piece has been put upon the stage in the West, but at this writing it seems unlikely that it will reach Broadway, and if it does, it will certainly make no dent in the receipts of the current obscenodrames. It is altogether too elusive and shadowy for that. The touch of Maeterlinck is upon it, and at other times it recalls Bjornson. Again, one hears echoes of Ibsen, of the Niebelung legends and of Hauptmann in his more fantastic moods. Altogether, it strikes a new note in the American drama. Cheap melodramas of hypnotism and parlor magic we have in plenty, but the play of true mysticism is almost unknown among us.

The principal characters in “The Faith Healer” are Ulrich Michaelis, the healer, and Rhoda Williams, a girl of somewhat subnormal purity. Michaelis, hearing the call to go forth and cure, makes himself ready for solitary vigils in the vast open spaces. His divine appointment, he believes, demands other-worldliness, detachment, renunciation. And it seems to be sound, this idea, for when he comes back to his fellow men, a word from him makes a bed-ridden woman rise and walk—greatly to the astonishment of her Darwin-worshiping husband. But then Michaelis encounters Rhoda and his power seems to leave him. Is it that love is not for the divinely anointed? Or is it that Rhoda’s sin has crippled him? Rhoda herself begs him to seek new strength by leaving her, but he refuses to go. In love, he seems to conclude, there may be even more power than in renunciation. . . . And as he clasps Rhoda to him the sick woman walks again.

This is a play full of suggestions and overtones; a play of the fourth dimension, illusory, dimly lighted, artistic; a play to read on a mountain top—but not one to entertain the world-weary white-goods buyer, the brandied bucketshop man and their respective sultanas.

Another drama of an unusual sort is “Swanwhite” (“Schwanenweise”) by the sinister Swede, August Strindberg, admirably translated by Francis J. Ziegler (Brown, $1.00). Here we have Strindberg in a happy, idyllic mood, telling a pretty fairy tale. It is as if Richard Strauss were to write a Wiener waltz, or Uncle Joe Cannon were to essay the vilanelle. The terrible Strindberg of “Glaubiger,” “Mit dem Feuer Spielen” and “The Father”—the maniacal woman hater, heretic and iconoclast—becomes a latter-day Hans Andersen and spins a charming little story of enchanted castles and a love that conquers death. After all, the man is human—and the discovery that he is gives one an agreeable surprise.

“Swanwhite,” it is announced, is the first of a series of translations of contemporary foreign plays. The publishers deserve the thanks of the public for their enterprise and congratulations upon the many excellencies of their first venture.

“An Englishman’s Home,” by Major Guy DuMaurier (Harpers, $1.25), had a brief and inglorious career on Broadway, and the critics were disposed to dismiss it with a sneer, but, as a matter of fact, a reading proves it to be a play of considerable merit. The author is a novice, true enough, but he is by no means a bungler. His dialogue is often good, his characters are plausible and clearly outlined, and his situations are managed with no little skill. It is easy to imagine the climax of the second act sending a thrill of horror through the first-night London audience. To us it seems bald melodrama—but we are not Englishmen, and there is no German fleet hovering off our coast.

“A Motley Jest,” by Oscar Fay Adams (Sherman-French, $1.00), is a good-humored attempt to write variations upon themes by William Shakespeare. It contains two clever sketches —one a Shakespearean fantasy in which many of the Bard’s personages appear, and the other a sixth act to “The Merchant of Venice”—and no less a pundit than Dr. Rolfe appends a note of applause. A pleasant oddity, with no little merit.

The author of “Mind Power” (Progress Co., $1.50) starts out with the following thesis: “There exists in nature a dynamic mental principle—a mind power, pervading all space—immanent in all things.” Inasmuch as this is not true, it may seem to be useless to follow him further, but as a matter of fact, the conclusions that he reaches later on are so astounding that his book fascinates by its very grotesquerie. He gives elaborately minute directions, for example, for “fascinating,” whereby it appears that if one looks intently through—not into—the eyes of another, that other will straightway become one’s slave. There are many other similar recipes and incantations, and the book, in general, is a veritable encyclopedia of the so-called “New Thought.” At bottom, of course, this “New Thought,” like the Emmanuel Movement, Spiritualism and all the other quack “sciences,” is based upon the idea that human intelligence is a sort of independent and all-pervasive ether or juice, with power not only to modify matter, but also to create and destroy it. This idea is a brother to the popular notion that Friday is an unlucky day. It is difficult, perhaps, to disprove it, but it is not at all difficult to show that the less a man believes it the more civilized is that man.

The Triumph of Truth—
by Henry Frank.
(Fenno, $1.50)
A popular statement of the case against Christianity. The author is reverent and earnest, and his book is a good one, but the pantheism that he offers as a substitute for the Christian miracle cult is not beyond criticism.

Behind the Veil in Persia and Turkish Arabia—
by M. E. and A. Hume-Griffith.
(Lippincott, $3.00)
An exceedingly interesting and intimate picture of life in the Near East, with plenty of good illustrations. The authors had unusual facilities for observation, and they write with simplicity and sympathy.

How It Is Done—
by Archibald Williams.
(Nelson, $2.00)
A clear, understandable explanation of the marvels of modern engineering—tunnels, bridges, aqueducts, canals, etc. Mr. Williams knows exactly how to make such things comprehensible to the lay mind. There are many diagrams and illustrations.

The Story of a Street—by Frederick Trevor Hill.
(Harpers, $2.00)
The true romance of Wall Street— particularly the romance of Wall Street in the olden time. A most interesting contribution to the history of New York. With many illustrations.

Trolley Folly—
by Henry Wallace Phillips.
(Bobbs-Merrill, $1.50)
Another collection of Mr. Phillips’s breezy short stories—chiefly of the West. The worst of them is amusing, and the best of them, “The Reverse of a Medal,” is a little masterpiece.

Lanier of the Cavalry—
by General Charles King.
(Lippincott, $1.25)
Another of General King’s romances of the Army. The scene is a frontier post in the 70’s, and the dashing young officers, pretty girls and treacherous Indians of the author’s earlier stories are all there.

A King in Khaki—
by H. K. Webster.
(Appleton, $1.50)
A brisk tale of adventure at the edge of the Spanish Main. The hero has an exciting bout with a soulless millionaire, and celebrates his victory by marrying his enemy’s daughter. An excellent story for a summer afternoon.

On the Road to Arden—
by Margaret Morse.
(Houghton-Mifflin, $1.50)
A lively little pastoral comedy with a double love story. Miss Morse has something of old Chaucer’s love for a spring day and a merry laugh. There are touches of poetry, too.

With Those That Were—
by Francis W. Grattan.
(Broadway Pub. Co., $1.50)
A thick book of dull yarns.

Memoirs of a Senate Page—
by Christian F. Eckloff.
(Broadway Pub. Co., $1.50)
Mildly interesting pictures of Washington in 1855-59, with some account of the principal antebellum pundits and sages. Too much borrowing from the Congressional Record.

The Memoirs of a Failure—
by D. W. Kittredge.
(James, $1.50)
A study in egomania and inefficiency, clumsily managed, but not without its moments.

The Bronze Bell—
by Louis Joseph Vance.
(Dodd-Mead, $1.50)
A fast-moving tale of adventure in two hemispheres, with a hero who routs men and devils. Its ingenuity and plausibility are unflagging.

The Glory of the Conquered—
by Susan Glaspell.
(Stokes, $1.50)
A novel of uneven quality, overstrained in places, but with abundant merit in other places. Its theme is woman’s love and sacrifice.

The Man Without a Shadow—
by Oliver Cabot.
(Appleton, $1.50)
A story of lost personality. It is not a new theme, but it is handled with resourcefulness and skill, and the result is a story that kills time very pleasantly.

Servitude— by Irene Osgood.
(Dana Estes, $1.50)
A rip-snorting yarn of adventure in the Barbary States a hundred years ago. The hero starts out as William Brown and ends as the Earl of Rathdowney.

The Lost Cabin Mine—
by Frederick Niven.
(Lane, $1.50)
A tale of the grim and inhospitable Southwest, conventional in plan, but with originality in the writing of it. A sort of Scotch Monte Cristo and the Apache Kid II, prospector and philosopher, are the principal figures.

Plain Economic Facts—
by Ambrose M. Thomas.
(Cochrane, $3.00)
A rhapsody on high and low finance, full of startling theories, apt alliteration and atrocious grammar. A true literary curiosity.

An Unfinished Divorce—
by Francis D. Gallatin.
(Cochrane, $1.50)
A didactic romance, in which the divorce question is discussed with ponderous banality.

by A. F. Calvert.
(Lane, $1.50)

Not a guide book, but an interesting volume describing the daily doings of the Madrilenos and the places and institutions of their city. No less than 453 full-page pictures.

The New Regime—
by John Ira Brant.
(Cochrane, $1.00)
A romance describing life in the year 2202. The work of an amateur entirely devoid of talent.

The Butler’s Story—
by Arthur Train.
(Scribners, $1.50)
A little melodrama of high society and high finance in New York City, seen through a stolid English servant’s eyes. Ridges, the butler, is always “in character,” and altogether it’s a novel and entertaining book.


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