The Burden of Humor

H.L. Mencken

The Smart Set/February, 1913

WHAT is the origin of the prejudice against humor? Why is it so dangerous, if you would keep the public confidence, to make the public laugh?

Is it because humor and sound sense are essentially antagonistic? Has humanity found by experience that the man who sees the fun of life is unfitted to deal sanely with its problems? I think not. No man had more of the comic spirit in him than William Shakespeare, and yet his serious reflections, by the sheer force of their sublime obviousness, have pushed their way into the race’s arsenal of immortal platitudes. So, too, with Aesop, and with Lincoln and Johnson, to come down the scale. All of these men were humorists, and yet all of them performed prodigies of indubitable wisdom. And contrariwise, many an undeniable pundit has had his guffaw. Huxley, if he had not been the greatest intellectual duellist of his age, might have been its greatest wit. And Beethoven, after soaring to the heights of tragedy in the first movement of the Fifth Symphony, turned to the divine fooling, the irresistible bull-fiddling of the scherzo.

No, there is not the slightest disharmony between sense and nonsense, humor and respectability, despite the almost universal tendency to assume that there is. But, why, then, that widespread error? What actual fact of life lies behind it, giving it a specious appearance of reasonableness? None other, I am convinced, than the fact that the average man is far too stupid to make a joke.

He may see a joke and love a joke, particularly when it floors and flabbergasts some person he dislikes, but the only way he can himself take part in the priming and pointing of a new one is by acting as its target. In brief, his personal contact with humor tends to fill him with an accumulated sense of disadvantage, of pricked complacency, of sudden and crushing defeat; and so, by an easy psychological process, he is led into the idea that the thing itself is incompatible with true dignity of character and intellect. Hence his deep suspicion of jokers, however their thrusts. “What a damphool!”—this same half-pitying tribute he pays to wit and butt alike. He cannot separate the virtuoso of comedy from his general concept of comedy itself, and that concept is inextricably mixed with memories of foul ambuscades and mortifying hurts. And so it is not often that he is willing to admit any wisdom in a humorist, or to condone frivolity in a sage.

In all this, I believe, there is a plausible explanation of the popular, and even of the critical attitude toward the late Samuel Langhorne Clemens (Mark Twain). Unless I am so wholly mistaken that my only expiation lies in suicide, Mark was the noblest literary artist who ever set pen to paper on American soil, and not only the noblest artist, but also one of the most profound and sagacious philosophers. From the beginning of his maturity down to his old age he dealt constantly and earnestly with the deepest problems of life and living, and to his consideration of them he brought a truly amazing instinct for the truth, an almost uncanny talent for ridding the essential thing of its deceptive husks of tradition, prejudice, flub dub and balderdash. No man, not even Nietzsche, ever did greater execution against those puerilities of fancy which so many men mistake for religion, and over which they are so eager to dispute and break heads. No man had a keener eye for that element of pretense which is bound to intrude itself into all human thinking, however serious, however painstaking, however honest in intent. And yet, because the man had humor as well as acumen, because he laughed at human weakness instead of weeping over it, because he turned now and then from the riddle of life to the joy of life—because of this habit of mind it is the custom to regard him lightly and somewhat apologetically, as one debarred from greatness by unfortunate infirmities.

William Dean Howells probably knew him better than any other human being, but in all that Howells has written about him one is conscious of a conditioned admiration, of a subtle fear of allowing him too much merit, of an ineradicable disinclination to take him quite seriously. The Mark that Howells draws is not so much a great artist as a glorious enfant terrible. And even William Lyon Phelps, a hospitable and penetrating critic, wholly loose of orthodox shackles—even Phelps hems and haws a bit before putting Mark above Oliver Wendell Holmes, and is still convinced that “The Scarlet Letter” is an incomparably finer work of art than “Huckleberry Finn.”

Well, such notions will die hard, but soon or late, I am sure, they will inevitably die. So certain am I, indeed, of their dying that I now formally announce their death in advance, and prepare to wait in patience for the delayed applause. In one of his essays Dr. Phelps shows how critical opinion of Mark has gradually evolved from scorn into indifference, and from indifference into toleration, and from toleration into apologetic praise, and from apologetic praise into hearty praise. The stage of unqualified enthusiasm is coming—it has already cast its lights before England —and I am very glad to join the lodge as a charter member. Let me now set down my faith, for the literary archeologists of day after tomorrow:

I believe that “Huckleberry Finn” is one of the great masterpieces of the world, that it is the full equal of “Don Quixote” and “Robinson Crusoe,” that it is vastly better than “Gil Blas,” “Tristram Shandy,” “Nicholas Nickleby” or “Tom Jones.” I believe that it will be read by human beings of all ages, not as a solemn duty but for the honest love of it, and over and over again, long after every book written in America between the years 1800 and 1860, with perhaps three exceptions, has disappeared entirely save as a classroom fossil. I believe that Mark Twain had a clearer vision of life, that he came nearer to its elementals and was less deceived by its false appearances, than any other American who has ever presumed to manufacture generalizations, not excepting Emerson. I believe that, admitting all his defects, he wrote better English, in the sense of cleaner, straighter, vivider, saner English, than either Irving or Hawthorne. I believe that four of his books—“Huck,” “Life on the Mississippi,” “Captain Stormfield’s Visit to Heaven,” and “A Connecticut Yankee”—are alone worth more, as works of art and as criticisms of life, than the whole output of Cooper, Irving, Holmes, Mitchell, Stedman, Whittier and Bryant. I believe that he ranks well above Whitman and certainly not below Poe. I believe that he was the true father of our national literature, the first genuinely American artist of the blood royal.

Such is my feeling at the moment, and such has been my feeling for many a moon. If any gentleman in the audience shares it, either wholly or with qualifications, then I advise him to buy and read the biography of Mark lately published by Albert Bigelow Paine (Harper), for therein he will find an elaborate, painstaking and immensely interesting portrait of the man, and sundry shrewd observations upon the writer.

Not that I agree with Paine in all his judgments. Far from it, indeed. It seems to me that he gets bogged hopelessly when he tries to prove that “The Innocents Abroad” is a better book than “A Tramp Abroad,” that he commits a crime when he puts “Joan of Arc” above “ Huck Finn,” and that he is too willing to join Howells and other such literary sacristans in frowning down upon Mark’s clowning, his weakness for vulgarity, his irrepressible maleness. In brief, Paine is disposed, at times, to yield to current critical opinion against what must be his own good sense. But when you have allowed for all this—and it is not obtrusive—the thing that remains is a vivid and sympathetic biography, a book with sound merit in every chapter of it, a mountain of difficulties triumphantly surmounted, a fluent and excellent piece of writing. Paine tells everything that is worth hearing, whether favorable to Mark or the reverse, and leaves out all that is not worth hearing. One closes the third volume with unbounded admiration for the industry of the biographer, and with no less admiration for his frankness and sagacity. He has given us a rich and colorful book, presenting coherently a wise selection from a perfect chaos of materials. The Mark Twain that emerges from it is almost as real as Huckleberry Finn.

And what a man that Mark Twain was! How he stood above and apart from the world, like Rabelais come to life again, observing the human comedy, chuckling over the eternal fraudulence of man! What a sharp eye-he had for the bogus, in religion, politics, art, literature, patriotism, virtue! What contempt he emptied upon shams of all sorts—and what pity! Mr. Paine reveals for us very clearly, by quotation and exposition, his habitual attitude of mind. He regarded all men as humbugs, but as humbugs to be dealt with gently, as humbugs too often taken in and swindled by their own humbuggery. He saw how false reasoning, false assumptions, false gods had entered into the very warp and woof of their thinking; how impossible it was for them to attack .honestly the problems of being; how helpless they were in the face of life’s emergencies. And seeing all this, he laughed at them, but not often with malice. What genuine indignation he was capable of was leveled at life itself and not at its victims. Through all his later years the riddle of existence was ever before him. He thought about it constantly; he discussed it with everyone he knew; he made copious notes of his speculations. But he never came to any soothing custom-made conclusion. The more he examined life, the more it appeared to him to be without meaning, and even without direction; the more he pondered upon the idea of God, the more a definite idea of God eluded him. In the end, as Mr. Paine tells us, he verged toward a hope less pessimism. Death seemed to him a glad release, an inestimable boon. When his daughter Jean died, suddenly, tragically, he wrote to her sister: “I am so glad she is out of it and safe—safe!”

It is this reflective, philosophizing Clemens who stands out most clearly in Mr. Paine’s book. In his own works, our glimpses of him are all too brief. His wife and his friends opposed his speculations, perhaps wisely, for the artist might have been swallowed up in the sage. But he wrote much to please himself and left a vast mass of unpublished manuscript behind him. Certainly it is to be hoped that these writings will see the light, and before long. One book described by Mr. Paine, “Three Thousand Years Among the Microbes,” would appear to be a satire so mordant and so large in scale that his admirers have a plain right to demand its publication. And there should be a new edition, too, of his confession of doubt, “What is Man?” of which a few copies were printed for private distribution in 1905. Yet again we have a right to ask for most if not all of his unpublished stories and sketches, many of which were suppressed at the behest of Mrs. Clemens, for reasons no longer worth considering. There is good ground for believing that his reputation will gain rather than suffer by the publication of these things, and in any case it can withstand the experiment, for “Huck Finn” and “Life on the Mississippi” and the “Connecticut Yankee” will remain, and so long as they remain there can be no question of the man’s literary stature. He was one of the great artists of all time. He was the full equal of Cervantes and Moliere, Swift and Defoe. He was and is the one authentic giant of our national literature.

Descending gracefully a few thousand feet we come to George Ade, who has suffered like Clemens for the popular distrust of humor, and perhaps even more, for a number of critics have gone to Clemens’s defense as an artist, albeit usually half-heartedly, whereas no one, so far as I know, has ever done the same for Ade. His fables in slang are praised much as Eddie Foy is praised—that is to say, to the accompaniment of an apologetic insistence that even a clown may be genuinely funny. The best thing I have ever heard said of him is that he is clean, that he does not import the coarse buffooneries of the barroom, the smoking car and the wedding reception into his books. And yet it seems to me, for all this determination to regard him only as a wayside scaramouche, charged with no higher mission than that of raising a horse laugh, that Ade is one of the few really respectable literary craftsmen now at large in our midst; that he comes nearer to making literature, when he has full steam up, than any save a scant dozen of our current native authors; and that the body of his work—I mean his book work and not his stage work—is in closer contact with life as the typical American leads it than the work of nine-tenths of our fictioneers, even our more serious fictioneers.

No single book of Robert W. Chambers, or Jack London, or Alice French or Richard Harding Davis, shows a half of the shrewd observation, the accurate generalizing, the keen sense of national peculiarity, the feeling for situation and character, that you will find in such Adean fables as “The Good Fairy of the Eighth Ward and the Dollar Excursion of the Steam Fitters,” “The Mandolin Players and the Willing Per former,” “The Honest Money Maker and the Partner of His Joys,” and “The Adult Girl Who Got Busy Before They Could Ring the Bell on Her.” And if you gave me my free choice between any one of Ade’s four fable books, or his “In Babel” on the one hand, and the whole published works of George Barr McCutcheon, or Meredith Nicholson, or Ellen Glasgow, or Harold MacGrath, or Amelie Rives, or even Gertrude Atherton, on the other hand, I should choose the Ade book without the slightest hesitation, as vastly more humanlike and interesting today and much more likely to be alive tomorrow.

Ade, in truth, is so little the mere clown that the chief impression I get from him is that of grimness. Like all genuine satirists, he forces his knife well below the skin and is not afraid to draw blood. At times, as in the fable of “Paducah’s Favorite Comedians” and in “Why ‘Gondola’ Was Put Away,” he is fooling and no more, but at other times, as in the fables of “Little Lutie,” “The Honest Money Maker,” “The Corporation Director and the Mislaid Ambition” and “The Ex-Chattel,” and in such stories as “George’s Return” and “Mr. Payson’s Satirical Christmas,” you will find him on the edges of a deep seriousness and wielding a devastating humor. He does not stop when he has made you laugh at pretense: he tries to make you detest it. And whenever he dallies with emotion, it is with a hand so sure that there is never any sense of straining, of theatricality, of unreality. I know of no American book which describes the unashamed sentimentality of youth with more accuracy and feeling than “Artie,” save it be Frank Norris’s “Blix.” And I know of no writing which pricks the elemental affectations more neatly or more savagely than such fables as “The Roystering Blades,” “The Common Carrier,” “The Heir and the Heiress,” “How Albert Sat In” and “The Old-Fashioned Prosecutor,” in the new Ade book, “Knocking the Neighbors” (Doubleday-Page). Here we have satire at its best, terse, ferocious and stinging. If you see only the surface grotesquerie, the fault is yours and not Ade’s; there are persons, I dare say, who see only low comedy in Rabelais.

But these things are mere sketches, light trifles, impromptus in bad English, easy to write and of no importance! Are they? Don’t believe it for a moment. Ten or twelve years ago, when Ade was at the height of his celebrity as a newspaper Sganarelle, scores of hack comedians tried to imitate him—and all failed. I myself was of the number. I operated a so-called funny column in a daily newspaper, and like my brethren near and far, I essayed to manufacture fables in slang. What miserable botches they were! How easy it was to imitate Ade’s style—and how impossible to imitate his substance! No, please don’t get the notion that it is simple matter to write such a fable as that of “The All Night Seance and the Limit That Ceased to Be,” or that of “The Preacher Who Flew His Kite, But Not Because He Wished to Do So.” Far from it, indeed. On the contrary, the only way you will ever accomplish the feat will be by first getting Ade’s firm grasp upon character, and his ability to think out a straightforward, amusing story, and his alert feeling for contrast and climax, and most of all, his extraordinary talent for devising novel, vivid and unforgettable phrases. Those phrases of his sometimes wear the external vestments of a passing slang, but they are no more commonplace and vulgar at bottom than Gray’s “mute, inglorious Milton” or the “somewhere East of Suez” of Kipling. They reduce an idea to a few pregnant syllables. They give the attention a fillip and light up a whole scene in a flash. They are the running evidences of an eye which sees clearly and of a mind which thinks shrewdly. They give distinction to the work of a man who has so well concealed a highly complex and efficient artistry that few have ever noticed it.

Of the humor of Irvin S. Cobb, a newcomer upon the sawdust, I can give you no such favorable account, though no less a literary juryman than the Hon. Robert H. Davis, whom I love and venerate extremely, puts him above Bret Harte and has even ranked him with Mark Twain. I can’t afford to encircle Robert with the hook, for I have been doing a lot of vociferous praising myself today, and perhaps it has overburdened many a tender stomach. But all the same I am forced to raise a feeble voice in dissent, for a diligent reading of Mr. Cobb’s “Anatomy” (Doran) has failed to do more than gently tickle me. What he offers here, indeed, is quite elemental burlesque writing of the sort made familiar by Bill Nye’s newspaper articles and Jerome K. Jerome’s “Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow,” that forgotten best seller of yesteryear. I do not say that Mr. Cobb is not funny; what I do say is that his fun keeps to the surface, that its chief quality is its obviousness. For example: “There never was a hansom cab made that would hold a fat man comfortably unless he left the doors open, and that makes him feel undressed.” For example: “Your hair gives you bother so long as you have it and more bother when it starts to go. You are always doing something for it and it is always showing deep-dyed ingratitude in return; or else the dye isn’t deep enough, which is even worse.” For instance: “Once there was a manicure lady who wouldn’t take a tip, but she is now no more. Her indignant sisters stabbed her to death with hatpins and nail files.” I do not think I quote unfairly; I have tried to give you honest specimens of Mr. Cobb’s manner. It is not a manner to arouse enthusiasm.

In his more serious work, in the book called “Back Home” (Doran), he is far more satisfying. Here he attempts a series of character sketches of the odd folk in a small Kentucky river town—apparently his native Paducah—and here he is unfailingly persuasive and entertaining. One feels that he knows these people perfectly, and what is more, that he loves them well. The result is an excellent row of portraits, a bit old-fashioned but altogether attractive.

A few more tomes of humor before we pass to graver things. The best of them, and by long odds, is “Elkan Lubliner: American,” by Montague Glass (Doubleday-Page), an author whose creatures are now as familiar to most of us as the characters of Dickens. The seven tales in the present book carry us from Elkan’s arrival in the United States, a raw immigrant boy, to the great commercial assaults and ambushes of his manhood, as a full partner in the eminent popular price cloak and suit firm of Polatkin, Scheikowitz & Co. Can it be, as I hear, that there are American Jews who object to these stories, as derogatory to their race and faith? Then there are worse asses among the Jews than I ever suspected. The truth is that Mr. Glass, for all his poking fun at Jewish foibles, is keenly alert to those large virtues which make the Jews a stable and successful people—their family pride and fidelity, their intelligent charity, their respect for an obligation, their constructive imagination, their constant looking ahead. Let the professional Jew who would gain applause by denouncing Glass give a fair reading to “A Match for Elkan Lubliner” or “Sweet and Sour,” two stories wholly creditable to Jewish character and at the same time wholly true to it. No more of this cheap bosh. Glass is an artist in whom every civilized Jew should see something to be proud of; he has done in the comic vein what Israel Zangwill did in a more serious vein, and unless I greatly err, he has done it even better. And meanwhile, he has set a significant example to those American short story writers who waste their effort in imitating one another, and are blind to the enormous stores of fresh material that girt them about.

“The Stage of Fools,” by Leonard Merrick (Kennerley), is less interesting, for though some of the stories in the book—it has seventeen in all—show Merrick at his cleverest, there are others which show him at his worst. “The Girl at Lake Lincoln,” for example, is the tedious and artificial sort of stuff that one might expect to find in an English penny weekly; no doubt it goes back to the author’s apprenticeship, and earned him a pound when he needed the money badly. But why reprint such drivel now? And why top it with such Bow Bells sentimentality as is to be found in “The Life They Said She Ruined”? I have hitherto called attention to the damage that Merrick is suffering by this occasional reprinting of his hack work; unless he is better edited hereafter he will be hurt beyond repair. “As He Was Born,” by Tom Gallon (Doran), need not detain us; it is an ingenious extravaganza, a new and astonishing version of the old fable of Lady Godiva, and too much telling about it would spoil it. So with “Just Boy,” by Paul West (Doran), a series of letters from one small boy to another, much in the style of Judge Shute’s “Plupy” books; I leave it to your own chuckling inspection.

“Jack — One of Us,” by Gilbert Frankau (Doran), gets into a newer field. It is a full length novel in verse—and not in simple doggerel, by any means, but in the complex, tricky stanza of “Don Juan” and “The Vision of Judgment.” Mr. Frankau handles that stanza with truly surprising skill. Not only does he surmount all its natural difficulties, but he actually introduces new difficulties into it, embellishing it with recondite puns, Pope-like antitheses, and nerve racking combinations of English, French, Latin and German. As for his story, it is a tale of amour, with a hero ranging the earth from Frankfurt A.M. to Palm Beach, Fla., and finally facing the fateful parson in rural England. Don’t miss this genuine novelty; it will amuse you far more than any of the current best sellers.

Which brings us to George Moore and the second volume of his trilogy of confessions, “Hail and Farewell” (Appleton). He calls it “Salve” —the salutation, not the unguent—and it deals at large with his return to Ireland, hot for Gaelic and the Neo-Celtic Movement, and with his gradual cooling and revolt. The thing that floored him was his discovery that the Irish held their faith reverently, that they had no work for an iconoclast to do. He tells the whole story, sparing no name and no detail: how he set up housekeeping in Dublin and announced his readiness to manufacture a new Irish literature; how his first efforts in that direction came under ecclesiastical censure; how he talked the thing over with Martyn, Kuno Meyer, Father Tom Finley, Frank Fay and all the other lights of the movement, through almost endless days and nights; and how, in the end, he came to the conclusion that literature was impossible under the Church of Rome, and so applied for communion in the Church of England and prepared to go back to London.

Such is the skeleton upon which Moore hangs his reminiscences, theories and speculations—a vast mass of Puckish and diverting dogmatizing about men, pictures, cities, ideas and books. It takes him just 220 pages to expound his doctrine that Catholicism is incompatible with the art of letters, but you need have no fear of that prolixity. Moore is one of the rare and fortunate writers whose manner is so charming that no one cares much about their matter. He once made a fascinating story of his mother’s funeral, and he could do the same, I have no doubt, with an account of his adventures in dentistry or a new numbering of Ulysses’ ships. Here he embellishes and relieves his argument with a thousand characteristic digressions—into the medication of sick cats, the invention of sauces, the training of children, the authorship of the New Testament, the wastefulness of celibacy, the hanging of pictures, the tricks of house agents, the sufferings of schoolboys, the impertinence of relatives, the sorrows of the world. In brief, he wanders and maunders; but what delightful wanderings —what artful maundering! If it bores you, even for a moment, I guess wrong.

James Lane Allen’s “The Heroine in Bronze” (Macmillan) is a middle-aged bachelor’s effort to create an idyll of young love, and I lament to report that the success of it is not commensurate with the striving. Mr. Allen’s lovers fall out over a misunderstanding which five words, or even an eloquent wink of the eye, might have set right; and in their discourse with each other they employ a somewhat elevated and self-conscious style, not at all, I fancy, like the meowing habitual to their age and state of mind. But here I do not press the point, for I begin to gather a respectable antiquity myself, and it is a long, long while since I last hung over a garden gate and wooed the ear of a backfisch.

Let me praise Mr. Allen for his pretty picture of a rising author’s dreams and hardships and pass on to Mrs. Wharton, whose “The Reef” (Appleton) is so far below “Ethan Frome” that it seems to be by a different novelist. Here we have the story of a dashing young American diplomat (the Indiana motif—the Siegfried of our national romance!) who stops off in Paris with Sophie Viner on his way to court the widowed Anna Leath. George Darrow’s intentions are honorable; he is sorry for poor Sophie and plans to do no more than take her to a few theaters. But the affair goes much further than that, and so he is given a great shock later on, when he finds Sophie installed in the Leath chateau as governess to Anna’s little daughter—and fiancee to Anna’s stepson! No doubt you can imagine the rest: how suspicions began to circulate, how Sophie breaks down and confesses, how the stepson rages and Anna weeps, and how, in the end, it is all smoothed over nicely and George and Anna make up. A tawdry story, almost bad enough for a best seller, but relieved and embellished, of course, by Mrs. Wharton’s keen wit, her skillful management of situation, her dramatic sense, her finished and admirable craftsmanship. However, I cannot recommend it as a fair specimen of her work, nor even as a passable specimen. That would be un just to you, and more unjust to Mrs. Wharton.

“Broken Arcs,” by Darrell Figgis (Kennerley), is an intolerably bad British novel of the seduced-and-deserted order, and “The Place of Honeymoons,” by Harold MacGrath (Bobbs-Merrill), is an American best seller. Ditto “The Heather Moon,” by C. N. and A. M. Williamson (Doubleday-Pege), albeit the authors are English. “Prudent Priscilla,” by Mary C. E. Wemyss (Houghton-Mifflin), is an amusing character sketch of a well-meaning, fatuous busybody. “The Street of the Two Friends,” by F. Berkeley Smith (Doubleday-Page) , is a series of thumbnail notes of student life in Montmartre and the Latin Quarter, with an occasional excursion into rural France—and one to Budapest. In them, a humane purpose: to defend the slandered Parisienne. I move quickly, hitting only the high places. Don’t miss “A Miscellany of Men,” a new collection of short essays by Gilbert K. Chesterton (Dodd-Mead), showing all his customary ingenuity and impudence and eloquence and sophistry. Or “My Life in Prison,” by Donald Lowrie (Kennerley), an intimate picture of San Quentin, extremely well done. Or “ Songs from Books,” by Rudyard Kip ling (Doubleday-Page), a gathering up of the scattered “quotations” and lyrical passages in the poet’s prose works, many of them with new stanzas. But this last belongs to my annual poetry article, which I hope to set before you, if I survive the poetry, in April.

Finally, five books of short stories by practised hands—“Baby Grand,” by John Luther Long (Badger); “The Unknown Quantity,” by Henry Van Dyke (Scribner); “The First Hurdle,” by John Reed Scott (Lippincott); “The Fall Guy,” by Brand Whitlock (Bobbs-Merrill), and “The Raid of the Guerilla,” by Charles Egbert Craddock (Miss Murfree) (Lippincott). To go backward, Miss Murfree, as usual, holds close to her Tennessee hills, and Mr. Whitlock finds most of his inspiration in city politics. Both writers deserve praise, not for towering genius, for they fall a good deal short of it, but at least for painstaking and conscientious effort. Mr. Whitlock, in particular, tries to get into his stories something more than mere fables. Such things as “Fowler Brunton” and “The Girl That’s Down,” indeed, are as much tracts as stories. But this naif seriousness of purpose needs no apology. “The Man Without a Country” is also a tract, and so is “The Kreutzer Sonata,” and so, I suspect, are “The Luck of Roaring Camp” and “Without Benefit of Clergy.” The thing we have to fear in this country is not the too serious writer, but the too facile writer. We have among us a lot of scrivening boys and girls so all-fired clever that they can make novels and stories out of sows’ ears. Discovering this magic talent, and seeing it easily convertible into money, they cease forthwith to hunt for more seemly material. The result is a great emission of flapdoodle, a debauch of bosh. An American novel or short story with a genuine idea in it, and some intelligible philosophy of life behind it, is as rare as an honest Congressman. When such a man as Theodore Dreiser or Frank Norris or David Graham Phillips comes along, putting hard thought into his work and careful observation and serious purpose, the first impulse of the candy-fed public is to dismiss him as a bore. If he wins recognition at all, it takes him a long time. And too often, as in Phillips’s case, his final portion is hopeless discouragement.

And not only our youngsters write this bosh I have mentioned, but also a number of our oldsters. For example, Dr. Van Dyke, who does it with an absurd air of dignity and importance in “The Unknown Quantity.” Here we have a book printed on fine paper, and elegantly stamped in gilt and three colors, and illustrated by such excellent artists as Garth Jones, Blendon Campbell and Sigismund de Ivanowski. Naturally enough, the reader looks for first class fare within. But what does he find? He finds a number of short stories so tedious and so empty that it is almost impossible to imagine them getting into the magazines. For instance, “The Wedding Ring,” a banal tale of love, with characters which creak in every joint. Again, “Humoreske,” a love story even more banal, and without the saving grace of brevity. Again, “The Night Call,” a dull piece of mysticism, pointless, unconvincing, New Thoughty. What is the excuse for this sort of stuff? Where is the “art” in it? It is praised as a matter of form by reviewers who re member Dr. Van Dyke’s past performances, and many readers tackle it, no doubt, with the feeling that they must like it, that to gag at it would be to suffer intellectual disgrace. Let me reassure them. It is bad, bad stuff—with mighty little “art” in it.

(Source: Hathitrust.org, https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=njp.32101076380433;view=1up;seq=356)