The Books of the Dog Days

H.L. Mencken

The Smart Set/September, 1909

JOHN GALSWORTHY’S book of “Plays” (Putnams, $1.50) is a welcome volume, not because the plays in it are good ones, but because they are by Galsworthy. He has won a high place for himself over in England as a writer of novels, and so it is interesting to observe any experiment that he chooses to make in other forms. If he should turn to the epic, the essay, or the limerick the result would be inevitably a composition well worth reading. And, as in the case of the present experiment, one reading would probably be enough. A novelist is a novelist and a playwright is a playwright. The difference between them is as abysmal as that between engraving on zinc and engraving on steel.

There are three dramas in this Galsworthy collection—“The Silver Box,” “Joy,” and “Strife.” The first, which was seen for a brief season on the New York stage, is a Socialistic tract upon the sorrows of the poor. There are two drunken loafers in the play—one the idle son of a rich father and the other the idle husband of a hard working wife. Both steal and both are caught. For the rich thief the law provides punishment in the shape of a bad scare. For the poor thief it provides thirty days with hard labor.

The real victims, of course, are the father and wife. The former suffers acute mental anguish and certain very material disadvantages, for he is a public man, and the latter suffers the breakup of her home, miserable as it is, and the loss of a good situation, for she has been accused of the crime her husband has committed, and only clears herself after languishing a while in the watch house. As for the thieves themselves, they acquire no permanent scars. The rich young idler soon forgets his scare, and the felonious pauper is not greatly incommoded by his thirty days.

It will be observed that the dialectic purpose of this drama, if it has any at all, is considerably muddled. Admitting it to be a fair picture of plausible human transactions—and we have a right to demand that every stage play be that—what is the answer? I confess that I don’t know. I do know, however, that Mr. Galsworthy’s characters, in the main, are very unconvincing stock types from the musty storehouse of the drama. The rich father, with his political hypocrisy and fondness for platitudes, comes from the earlier plays of Pinero, and the idle young rascal of a son strongly suggests the Robertsonian era. As for the pauper and his wife, they belong to the Niebelungen Ring of Socialism. In “Major Barbara” they were far more interesting.

“Joy” is of even less dramatic value than “The Silver Box,” but its dialogue is more ingenious and its people are more human. The situation it sets forth is essentially that of George Moore’s “Agnes Lahens.” A woman with a daughter at the age of dawning intelligence acquires a lover, and proceeds to the herculean enterprise of carrying one upon each shoulder. The thing, of course, is impossible, for the daughter, with all a virtuous woman’s passion for pronouncing sentence first and trying the case afterwards, excommunicates both mother and lover forthwith. The drama is played in the soul of the daughter; the others merely feed the fires that rage there. It is a drama of no little poignancy, and Mr. Galsworthy is aware of it, but it is also one that requires a high order of skill for its working out in stage form. Mr. Galsworthy is yet devoid of that skill. His play creaks at the joints. Intent upon producing effects, he is unable to mask the devices whereby they are produced.

“Strife,” in some ways, is the best of the three plays. It tells the story of a mine strike, and it sets forth with considerable insight the insincerity which marks such contests on both sides. On the surface a strike is a war to the death between groaning labor and predatory capital, or groaning capital and predatory labor, as you please. At bottom, it is usually a fight between two men, each with a savage lust for conquest in his heart. The stockholders that go broke and the strikers’ wives that starve are innocent sacrifices to the wille zur macht of these inhuman duelists.

Again Mr. Galsworthy’s technique fails. Again his characters smell of the storehouse. Again his dialogue is leaden. Again he proves that an excellent novelist usually makes an indifferent dramatist.

It would be difficult to imagine two men more utterly unlike in externals than Hall Caine and John D. Rockefeller, and yet the autobiographies of the pair, published recently, have more than a little in common. In each the author attempts to draw a picture of himself as he would have posterity and the celestial grand jury see him, and both pictures, naturally enough, are marked by magnificent charity. Caine, indeed, does not hesitate to hint that he is one of the first illuminati of the age. And John D., on his part, wants it to be understood that he is a fine old fellow, with the soft heart of a Tammany leader and the corundum virtue of an early Christian martyr. So much for the aims of Hall and John as conscious artists. Fortunately for the reader, their most elaborate effects, like those of every other artist, are conditioned and modified by touches of unconscious self-revelation. Behind the picture we always glimpse the man, and the man is often more interesting than the picture.

Caine’s book is called “My Story” (Appleton, $1.50) and is a tome of considerable bulk and dignity. He begins with an account of his childhood on the Isle of Man, and he ends with a chapter of “beautiful” reflections upon the obsequies of Wordsworth and Tennyson. The youthful Caine, it appears, was a true father to the man—a hardworking, ambitious, bumptious, assertive youngster who took his work with vast seriousness and was eager for a word of praise, however insincere. He pestered the literary lions of the day with letters; he gave them his manuscripts to read, and he filed away their good-natured commendations in his archives. Some of these commendations he prints in his book, and there they constitute an eternal proof of the folly of politeness.

With the drug-soaked and melodramatic Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Caine struck up what he seems to regard as a memorable friendship. As a matter of fact, his own story of it leads to the suspicion that Rossetti looked upon him as a sort of literary butler and private claque. The poet yearned for an ever-faithful audience—one that would be ready to huzzah whenever a huzzah would help his digestion. Caine filled the bill. His worship was constant and copious, for he felt that the greater the god the greater the devotee. He was ready to admire day or night. Even Rossetti’s capacity for chloral excited his awe.

The autobiography of such a man must needs be an intensely interesting human document. It is not often that we can get so intimate a view of a common mind, for it is only rarely that a common mind is articulate. Suppose you could actually look into the cerebellum of the man who mows your chin, or of the woman who dusts your office, or of your trousers presser, your ward leader, your father-in-law, or any other human blank of your acquaintance: what a host of interesting discoveries you would make! You would learn in one easy lesson why it is that sentient beings, theoretically sane, join fraternal orders, march in parades, go to political meetings, wear badges, read the poems of Ella Wheeler Wilcox and weep over the plays and novels of Hall Caine. As it is, the thing is an impenetrable mystery, and it will remain so until someone establishes a science of comparative psychology and gives exhaustive study to the embryology of mental processes. Meanwhile, it helps us a bit to examine the anatomy and physiology of a mind that is obviously in tune (to borrow a phrase from wireless telegraphy) with the mass mind of the fraternalists, the paraders, the badge wearers. At all events, the book throws some light upon the elusive psychic states which precede the genesis of a platitude and are necessary to the evolution of bathos.

Caine’s own story, in a word, is ten times as engrossing as any of his novels. That he is a novelist of subtlety and skill I do not presume to deny, but I am on safe ground, I believe, when I maintain that it would take a whole seminary of Thackerays, working day and night, in eight-hour shifts for a geological epoch, to create a character as interesting as Hall Caine himself.

The other book, that of Mr. Rockefeller, entitled “Random Recollections of Men and Events” (Doubleday-Page, $1.00) is less ingenuous than Caine’s, but scarcely less readable. The Oil King is on the defensive throughout, and in his defense he employs not only common logic and ignoble facts, but also sophistry and paralogy of a high order. This is not sarcasm; I mean it seriously. Logic and facts are within the reach of all, and any numskull can show that twice two is four, but it takes ability of a rare sort to demonstrate the inconceivable. And yet John D. does it constantly, and with the ease of a psychical researcher proving the existence of spooks. When he lays down, for example, the thesis that the Standard Oil Company is a law-abiding and patriotic corporation, he not only lays it dawn, but also proves it triumphantly. You may know that he is wrong in premise and conclusion as certainly as you know that virtue is its own punishment, and yet, when he comes to quod erat demonstrandum, and looks up into your eyes with that pious smile of his, you are literally forced to believe him, no matter how piteously your tortured intelligence shrieks. If you would find his equal in the higher chicanery of the dialectic, you must go back to St. Augustine, Tertullian, Origen, Philo Judaeus and St. Hilary of Poitiers.

This book will give you a new respect for the Oil King. He is not merely a money grubber plus a theologian, but a man of imagination and mental beam, full of daring and originality and skilled in all the casuistry of the jury lawyer, the ballyhoo evangelist and the politician. And when he abandons the hortatory mood and descends to plain exposition, he is beautifully clear and convincing. His ideas about everything he discusses, whether it be gardening, accounting, pathology or ecclesiastic promoting, are those of a far-seeing, reflective man, and he sets them forth in simple English. There is nothing of the visionary about him. The one god in his Olympus is Efficiency—and Efficiency, if you come to think of it, is a very passable divinity.

A third autobiography of a picturesque sort is “Twenty Years in Hell with the Beef Trust,” by Roger R. Shiel. Shiel, it seems, is a hog baron of Indianapolis, and his book tells the story of his lifelong investigations into the embryology, dietetics, slaughtering, post-mortem disposition and political economy of his favorite quadruped. He believes that the breed of hogs could and should be improved, and he believes the same thing of the breed of pork packers. His opinions are expressed with incandescent heat and exotic grammar, and altogether his book is a literary curiosity of a rare sort. You will begin by laughing at him, but you will end with no little admiration for the man. It seems a grotesque ambition to make all the yearling hogs in the United States weigh ten pounds more than their fathers at the same age, but it is out of such ambitions that human progress arises.

The story of one of the most remarkable women that Ireland ever produced is told in Edmund B. d’Auvergne’s biography of “Lola Montez” (Lane, $4.00). Lola has been roasting in Gehenna for forty-eight long years, and so the world is fast forgetting her, but in her time she was a personage of the first consideration. A graceful, bright-eyed, insidious, bewitching hussy, she had only to look on a man to make him her slave; but however much she enjoyed such conquests of the flesh, they never quite satisfied her. She regarded them, indeed, as but means to an end, for there was always some fantastic crusading impulse behind her smile. She made a fool of Ludwig of Bavaria in order that she might combat the Jesuits who invaded his kingdom. Her piety was of the early Victorian brand; she hated, not sin, but heresy; not immorality, but its color. Like some fascinating saint of the ages of faith, she was willing to sell her kisses that the true gods might reign.

At the start of her career Lola was all drab; at its end she was all religieuse. With her beauty went her last spark of enjoyment in the game for its own sake. She died in the odor of sanctity, with a parson bending low over her, making the colossal promises that parsons presume to make. “If ever a repentant soul loathed past sin,” said this ecclesiastic afterward, “I believe hers did.” It is to be regretted that the picture has come down to us. Lola triumphant was stupendous; Lola repentant was merely absurd.

Mr. d’Auvergne’s loathing for sin seems to be well-nigh as virulent as Lola’s. He uses the soft pedal constantly; he seems to be sorry that his heroine was so frisky in her youth, and to regret sincerely that he can’t prove her a virgin. This attitude makes his study of her character, of her impulses and motives, of no value whatever. But the story that he has to tell is so interesting in itself that his shortcomings cannot spoil it. I read every word on his nearly four hundred pages.

“An Anarchist Woman,” by Hutchins Hapgood (Duffield, $1.50), is the story of a slum girl’s evolution into a princess of the Reds, and Mr. Hapgood seems to think that it throws no little light upon the mental processes which culminate in the rejection of all government and codes of morality. In this he is in error. As he depicts her, indeed, his heroine shows scarcely any mental processes at all. She is an animal at the start and an animal at the end. The impulse which leads her to the harem of her Chicago bravo is that which leads her, now and again, to actual prostitution—the commonplace desire to achieve a maximum of alcohol at a minimum of effort. She is, in brief, a thoroughly dissolute beast, whose badly digested stock of “advanced” theories is comparable, in lucidity, to a negro bishop’s discourse on immortality. As a philosophical idea, Anarchy is apparently as far beyond her grasp as Ehrlich’s theory of immunity. All she seems able to gather is that it is a scheme of things which offers some color of excuse for her native swinishness.

But, inasmuch as the book is not fiction but the true story of a real woman, told, in the main, by her own letters, it has no little psychological value. People of her sort are not rare in the world, and it is of interest to study them. In the present case, however, it is important to bear in mind that the subject of study is not a philosopher but a drab. The fact that she professes to be an Anarchist is of no more importance than the fact that she has “large eyes, dark and glowing.”

When he took his pen in hand Mr. Hapgood bade farewell to blushes. The result is a book whose frankness makes the kittenish pornography of “Three Weeks” fade from the enraptured mind. If I had the time, I should make a catalogue of the most feverish passages, for the benefit of those connoisseurs who shrink from the labor of searching them out. As it is, I can only recommend page 163.

In “The People at Play,” by Rollin Lynde Hartt (Houghton-Mifflin, $1.50), the author snoops thoughtlessly along the edges of a field that the great majority of American writers seem afraid to enter—if they are actually aware of it at all. Our current fiction, whether it takes the novel form or that of the stage play, concerns itself almost exclusively with the soul struggles of the opulent minority. Its typical hero, if he is not already rich when the curtain rises upon him, is nearly certain to achieve riches before it falls. His psychological history is that of a magnifico; his thoughts are never colored by his belly needs. Intensely interested in the price of first mortgage bonds, he has no interest at all in the price of soup meat. Only occasionally does an American writer, in a “McTeague” or a “Sister Carrie,” consider the problems and passions of that average American who makes up the nether millions—that average American to whom the struggle for existence is a very real thing, because his average annual income, as the census reports tell us, is less than six hundred dollars.

Mr. Hartt, in his book, takes a look at the brute—and then explodes in roars of merriment. The great masses of the plain people, he discovers, are exceedingly amusing, particularly when they seek amusement. They go to the ball game, and actually grow excited over the exploits of the low fellows out on the diamond. They go to their cheap theater, and actually weep with joy when the honest working girl triumphs over the seducer and lifts up her chaste lips to the hero. They long for something to make them forget the heat and burden of the day, and that something, because their minds are not attuned to the finer sort of stimulus, must have plenty of steam behind it. Therefore, they are ridiculous.

Mr. Hartt, it may be admitted, is right in his final conclusion, but the route whereby he reaches it shows him to be a philosopher of a singularly superficial sort. He constantly assumes, in a word, that the comic flavor which he finds in the amusements of the proletariat is peculiar to the sports of that caste. In this assumption he overlooks entirely the fundamental psychological fact that the essence of diversion is futility, and that futility necessarily involves an exaggerated disproportion between means and end, which, in itself, is the essence of the ridiculous. He points out, very justly, that the spectacle of a New York garbage man reading the editorial page of the Evening Journal is comic, but he seems to forget that the spectacle of an educated and presumably civilized Bostonian reading the genealogical page of the Transcript is even more comic. Both men are throwing away their time in a grotesquely wasteful manner, and both are enjoying it.

A fat statesman ponderously galloping about his golf links, a melomaniac puzzling over the opening chords of “Elektra,” a millionaire bidding $10,000 for a First Folio Shakespeare, a shop girl sweating diabolically at a dance in a hall over a livery stable—all are ridiculous, because all are employing herculean means to attain scarcely appreciable ends. But here is comedy that we had better enjoy quietly, and, as it were, in our sleeves. Not one of us can afford the loud guffaws of Mr. Hartt, for not one of us escapes service in turn, as performer. As for the plain people, considered as a class, it is well to admit that our kinship with them, while vague in some respects, is assertively obvious in others.

When they attempt serious cogitation in the departments of politics, philosophy, or religion, it is always safe, perhaps, to laugh at them and even to hoot them, turn the hose on them and chase them out of the synagogue; but in their hours of ease, when their aim is merely to kill time in some engrossingly elaborate and futile manner, it is probably more discreet to laugh with them.

“Alcohol,” by Dr. Henry S. Williams (Century Co., 50 cents), is a chapbook against the most delightful of all juices. Dr. Williams is no blowzy evangelist, howling in a gospel tent, but a pathologist of learning and intelligence. The question as to whether a winebibber can ever hope to go to Heaven does not interest him. All he seeks to discover and set forth is the effect of alcohol upon the mental and bodily machinery. His conclusion seems to be that that effect is constantly pernicious. Even in small doses, he says, alcohol attacks the vital organs, interferes with the mental processes and promotes the growth of the germs of disease. The man who absorbs even as little as one ounce of alcohol a week is appreciably less valuable as a citizen than the man who absorbs none at all.

The Doctor’s statistics are overwhelming, and his conclusions, on their face, seem to be perfectly sound; but, like all students of tables and percentages, he is often unable to see the facts for the figures. He proves, for example, that fifty per cent., more or less, of all criminals are devotees of the stein and goblet, and he seems to conclude therefrom that alcohol is responsible for fifty per cent of all crime. A moment’s reflection will show the fallaciousness of this. The same mode of reasoning, indeed, will prove that alcohol is responsible for fifty per cent of all poetry, sixty per cent of all philosophy, seventy per cent of all prose fiction and ninety-nine per cent of all music.

The notion that teetotalers, as a class, are more valuable to the race than moderate drinkers is one that we should not accept with too much alacrity. Drink, true enough, is responsible for many crimes of violence, but such crimes, in the last analysis, are less harmful to society than those done in cold blood. And your cold-blooded criminal, whether he be a burglar, a Mormon elder, or a Tammany leader, is almost always assertively sober. In its long journey down the ages, indeed, the chief burdens of the water wagon have been vileness and theology. It was a teetotaler, I have no doubt, that gave us the doctrine of infant damnation, but it was a joyful, clean-minded pothouse athlete that gave us “Much Ado About Nothing.”

Dr. Williams’s proofs that total abstinence is necessary to extreme longevity are convincing without being impressive. Before the human race will accept the conclusions he draws from them, it must first accept the theory that the usefulness and agreeableness of life are to be measured by its duration, and by its duration only. No such theory is held today by sane men. We estimate an individual life, not by its length, but by its breadth. Fifty years of Shakespeare were worth more to the world than the innumerable hundreds of all the centenarians that ever lived.

I voice these modest objections, not because I hold a brief for alcohol, but because I want to show that the fearsome figures of the anti-rum crusaders are not to be taken too seriously. The ideal of human existence that they have before them is not that of intelligent, efficient men. It is too austere, too drab, too nearly bloodless. They forget that there is such a thing as an art of life—that civilization, at bottom, is really a successful conspiracy to defy and nullify the simple laws which secure the perpetuation of the protozoa. The physical act of reading a book obviously shortens life, for it not only strains the eyes but also tends to compress the lungs and other viscera and to atrophy the disused muscles of leg and arm; but the man of thirty who has read many books is more creditable to the race, all other things being equal, than the man of ninety who has merely lived ninety years. The argument for alcohol, though by no means identical, is at least similar. Its crimes cry aloud to heaven, but its services are not to be forgotten. When we are told that it makes life shorter, let us remember that, by dulling the tragedies of existence and heightening the joys, it also makes life more bearable. How saith the ancient scribe? “A short life and a merry one—”

A cold-water book of another sort is ”The Revellers,” by the Rev. R. E. McBride (Broadway Pub. Co., $1.25). It is the purpose of the reverend author to prove that Euripides, the great Greek dramatist, was a prohibitionist, and that the choruses in his Bacchai are really subtle attacks upon the rum devil. Like the Book of Revelation, this argument is intensely interesting but extremely unconvincing.

“The Half Moon,” by Ford Maddox Hueffer, once Joseph Conrad’s collaborator (Doubleday-Page, $1.35), is an exceedingly interesting attempt to pry into the psychology of a historical episode. We know that Hendrik Hudson had a thirst for exploration in his heart and that on one of his voyages he discovered the Hudson River. Why this thirst of Hendrik? And why were men eager to go with him? Mr. Hueffer seeks an answer by essaying to reconstruct the period—not only its externals, but also those deep currents of thought and impulse which, by their unique combination, made it differ from all other periods. The result is a book of curious fascination—a historical novel which has almost nothing in common with other historical novels.

In “The Shadow of the Crescent,” by Edward Bedinger Mitchell (Stokes, $1.50), the author attempts the experiment of moving the delectable principality of Zenda into the Levant. This experiment, it must be confessed, is not only novel, but also successful. We have all the pistol play, midnight galloping and magnificent love making of the early Hope stories—against a rococo Oriental background. Altogether, it’s a delightfully impossible story, told in safe journalese and without any vain attempts at literary adornment.

Another hot-weather novel with thrills in it is “Waylaid by Wireless,” by Edwin Balmer (Small-Maynard, $1.50). The author is the same litterateur who devised the central situation of the popular play called “Via Wireless.” It would be unjust to him to give an outline of his present fable. Suffice it to say that the chief character employs the wireless telegraph of a big Atlantic liner in a way which should suggest a new means of felony to the gentlemen gamblers of the smoking rooms.

A puzzling book is “Fleet Street and Other Poems” (Kennerley, $1.25), by John Davidson, an English poet, who recently expressed his dissent from the scheme of things by committing suicide. Davidson in his day wrote many an excellent verse, but toward the end of his life the labor of clear thinking became oppressive to him and he set up shop as a sort of latter-dayWalt Whitman. The so-called poems in this posthumous volume show the deplorable result. The thoughts at the bottom of them are such as might have been formulated by a drunken pillar saint of the middle ages on contemplating the mysteries of the universe. The language in which they are uttered is the ultra-scientific jargon of a somewhat bumptious first-year physics student. A sample outburst:

Fleet Street was once a silence in the ether.
The carbon, iron, copper, silicon,

Constituents of the skeleton and shell
Of Fleet Street—of the woodwork, metalwork,
Brickwork, electric apparatus, drains
And printing presses, conduits, pavements, road—
Were at the first unelemental space,
Imponderable tension in the dark
Consummate matter of eternity.

But let us not dwell upon the crimes of the dead.

A compilation worthwhile is Mrs. Harriet P. Lynch’s “Year Book of Southern Poets” (Dodge, $1.25). There is a quotation for every day in the year, and some of them are from the writings of bards little known in the North. Mrs. Lynch has managed, with considerable skill, to select the best lines of each. It is somewhat surprising, however, to find that she has omitted all mention of four of the most delightful singers the South has ever produced. I allude to Lizette Woodworth Reese, Robert Loveman, Frank Stanton and Folger McKinsey—two Georgians and two Marylanders. Miss Reese’s sonnet, “Tears,” I believe is the most beautiful sonnet ever written by an American, and Mr. Loveman’s little song, “It Isn’t Raining Rain to Me,” the most exquisite lyric. The work of Stanton and McKinsey, perhaps, falls short of such heights, but at its best it is very good indeed.

Certainly not a dozen American poets, North or South, have ever exceeded the charm of Stanton’s love songs or of McKinsey’s fragrant ballads of old Maryland. These men have nothing in common with the old school Southern minnesingers—of which tiresome legion the late James Ryder Randall was a horrible example —for neither goes in for patriotic bathos. On the contrary, they are true poets, whose delight in a beautiful thing is for its own sake.

Where the Fishers Go—
by P. W. Browne.
(Cochrane, $1.50)
An exhaustive treatise upon the history, geography, fisheries, wild animals and people of Labrador, with copious extracts from all other authorities and scores of pictures. Baedeker himself could have done no more.

by Edward Gruse.
(Broadway Pub. Co., $1.00) Poems in name only.

An Amateur Performance—
by Elmer Evinson.
(Broadway Pub. Co., $1.25)
An exceedingly bad detective story. The title describes it exactly.

The Transition—
by Rev. John L. Hill.
(Broadway Pub. Co., $1.50)

A stupid novel by a preacher and about a preacher. Bad in everything save binding and morality.

The Whirl—
by Foxcroft Davis.
(Dodd-Mead, $1.50)
A tale of love and diplomatic intrigue at Washington, told with plausibility and with quite human characters. A very good example of the new school of Washington romance.

Gambolling With Galatea—
by Curtis Dunham.
(Houghton-Mifflin, $1.15)
An agreeable little pastoral satire, in which a poet and a cow play almost equal parts. Now and then the comedy runs rather thin, but in the main it is pleasantly diverting.

The Analysis of Beauty—
by William Hogarth.
(Silver Lotus Shop, $1.50)
An excellent reprint of Hogarth’s famous exposition of his theory of beauty. All of the original drawings are inserted in the text. A book of interest and value to all who love beautiful things.

Tales of Aztlan—
by George Hartmann.
(Broadway Pub. Co., $1.00)
Reminiscences of early days in the Southwest. The author’s lamentable delusion that he is a humorist makes for heavy reading.

The Rural Schoolteacher—
by Buchanan White.
(Broadway Pub. Co., $1.00)
A country schoolteacher’s effort to write a moral tale. The obvious moral is that country schoolteachers had better stick to country school teaching.