The Good, The Bad and the Best Sellers

H.L. Mencken

The Smart Set/November, 1908

PLATITUDES have their uses, have no doubt, but in the fair field of imaginative literature they have disconcerting habit of denouncing and betraying one another. Separate single platitude from the herd, and you will find it impeccable, inviolable and inevitable; comforting, amiable and well-mannered. But then lead out another, and try to drive them tandem; or three more, and try to drive them four-in-hand; and you will quickly land in the hospital—your collar-bone broken, your head in whirl and your raiment muddy and torn.

Consider, for example, the ancient and pious platitude that it is wrong for the rich to rob the poor, for the strong to exploit the weak. Examining it from all sides, you are bound to admit that it is true. It is the fruit of countless ages of hard thinking and bitter experience; it appears in Holy Writ; it is embalmed in the platforms of all the great parties; it bears the O. K. of your pastor and of Mr. Roosevelt, and your own experience with gas companies, beef trusts and janitors convinces you of its eternal verity. But just attempt to harness it with some other platitude—say, for instance, with the one which announces that only the poor are happy, and see where the two will carry you. You will have, then, (a) the doctrine that it is wrong to make the poor poorer, and (b) the doctrine that the poorer man grows the happier he becomes. Now, let x equal the word “poorer” and y equal the word “happier,” and try a little equation, thus:

(It’s wrong to make the poor x): (The x a man grows the y he becomes.)

An inspection of the second part of this equation, in its original form, shows that x and y are exchangeable terms. Therefore, let us substitute y for x in the first part. This gives us: “It is wrong to make the poor y,” which, being restored, becomes: “It is wrong to make the poor happier.”

I have suspicion that there is some truth in this last hybrid, as there is in all untruths, but of that it is best to say nothing. The real point is that our two platitudes have led us to a conclusion which, whatever its logical soundness, is undoubtedly impossible, not to say immoral.

But what have platitudes to do with the divine art of literature? And, in particular, what have they to do with Upton Sinclair’s new romance, “THE MONEYCHANGERS” (Dodge, $1.50)? Simply this: that hordes of the bacillus platitudae have entered Sinclair’s system and are preying upon his vitals. They have already consumed his sense of humor and are now fast devouring his elemental horse sense. The first result is that he is taking himself and the world seriously, and the second result is that he is writing tracts. Saving only explanatory programs for symphony concerts, tracts constitute the lowest of all forms of literature. To write a play, novel, poem or even newspaper editorial, one must first ensnare an idea. To write a tract one needs but leisure, grouch and platitude.

If Sinclair were natural tractarian, born to the vice, it would be scarcely worthwhile to waste space upon him. But he is not, for his past performances upon the literary turf—and his present book, too, in more than one place—prove that he has a genuine gift for writing better things. His feeling for form and climax is sure; he sees the essential thing in the heap of unessential things; and—though he doesn’t always do it—he knows how to write simple, straightforward, natural dialogue. When he started out he loomed big. There seemed to be something of the vigor of Frank Norris, even of Zola, in him. He appeared to sense the sheer meaninglessness of life—the strange, inexplicable, incredible tragedy of the struggle for existence. But then came the vociferous success of “The Jungle.” The afflatus of divine mission began to stir him, and he sallied forth to preach his incomprehensible jehad. Today he is going the road of Walt Whitman, of Edwin Markham, of the later Zola, all of whom began as artists and ended as mad mullahs.

“THE MONEYCHANGERS” is the second volume of trilogy which began with “The Metropolis.” Its hero, Allen Montague, is a young Southern lawyer who goes to New York to try his fortune. He soon finds, however, that in the money marts of Manhattan, the chivalry of the Confederate States has no place—that it is impossible, in brief, to make a million there and yet remain a Southern gentleman. So he abandons his original enterprise and sets up shop as a sort of virtuoso of virtue in the midst of the jackals. They pass before him in review, scheming, swindling and betraying, dog eating dog. He sees them at close range, in their homes and in their offices, at their play and at their trade. Over all the muck of promoters, liars, thieves, robbers and seducers towers the epic figure of Dan Waterman, master of Wall Street. Waterman preys upon the lesser jackals, and these, in turn, feast upon the people. It is a grim and moving picture, and despite its melodrama, it somehow bears an air of truth.

Mr. Sinclair’s story, indeed, is passionately and riotously veracious. It purports to show how certain money kings caused the panic of last autumn—and it shows all this more clearly and plausibly than any Presidential message or leading article yet inflicted upon the public. It purports to show the evil influence of money madness upon the human soul—and it shows. It purports to show that, when the dollar barons fight, the common people die in the trenches—and the proof is there. But why show and prove such things? Why demonstrate the obvious? Why go over ground that is trodden smooth by every campaign spellbinder and magazine muckraker? Why mouth platitudes and draw the willing tear with banalities?

Carried away by his notion that his own sophomoric theory of human existence is Mosaic revelation, and his secondary, but equally virulent, notion that all other theories are criminal and of the devil, Mr. Sinclair has hopelessly confused the functions of the novelist with those of the crusader. His story, despite its interest and its craftsmanship, is not a moving picture of human passions, not an analysis of the human soul under suffering, but somewhat florid thesis in sociology, with conclusions that were stale in the days of St. Augustine. His characters are at once too familiar and too elusive. Very evidently they impinge upon his own consciousness, not as real persons, but as incarnations of the more elemental virtues and vices. To the reader they appear as mere names in brief for the prosecution, and in reality and vitality are one with John Doe and Mary Doe.

Let Mr. Sinclair, after his trilogy is done, choose between crusading and writing. If he yearns to go down into history with Marx and Debs, Mohammed and Dowie, Billy Sunday and Sam Jones—well and good. But if he wants fame to know him as an anatomist of the human soul—as a novelist comparable with Norris of “The Octopus,” for example—let him remember that an economic struggle, to make material for fiction, must be pictured, not objectively and as mere bout between good and evil, but subjectively and as some chosen protagonist sees and experiences it. A novel as well written as “THE MONEYCHANGERS,” but with Dan Waterman filling the picture—a novel laying bare his mind and showing us why, how and by what manner of ratiocination he arrives at his deviltries—would be a novel of the first rank. And by the same token a novel showing, specifically and with insight, the exact manner and means whereby Waterman’s deviltries blast some given poor man—John Smith or William Brown—would be of the first rank, too. For in the novel, as in the drama, the interest lies, always and inevitably, in some one man’s effort to master his fate. From the acts which make up this effort, the reader may hope to deduce some syllable of philosophy for his own use. But out of a tract he can get nothing but platitude—a platitude which he knows to be true, and which he also knows to be untrue.

Mr. Sinclair may maintain that Allen Montague is the protagonist in “THE MONEYCHANGERs”—that the drama is played in his soul—that the philosophy is distilled from his lips. If such is his notion, it may be well to recall to his mind certain things he was taught at college about the Greek drama, and particularly certain things concerning the difference between a protagonist and a chorus.

Against the Sinclairian pessimism, the pessimism of William Salisbury in “THE CAREER OF A JOURNALIST” (Dodge, $1.50 net) seems almost genial. The book is not a novel, but a record of nine years in the author’s life, told in simple, unpretending English. These years were spent in journalism, and the record seeks to reveal the sad state of that profession in the United States today. It is a depressing picture, certainly, but I fear that it cannot be called false one. Its defect lies in the fact that Mr. Salisbury often too eagerly generalizes from insufficient facts. He seems to believe, for example, that all American newspapers, without exception, are irresponsible and corrupt. This is an overestimate, for here and there, sometimes in the large cities, but oftener in the small ones, you will yet find a journal of the old school, still prosperous and still a power, whose editorial office is neither circus ring, furnished room, nor the antechamber of trust. Such honest papers, like the books of the South, mourned by deathless Cooglar, are “growing fewer and fewer,” but where they stand at all, they stand steadfast—virginal, austere, unravished. They constitute, I should say, about one-tenth of one percent of the nation’s public prints.
Mr. Salisbury has a discursive style and a fondness for non-essentials, but his book, despite its bulk, is engrossing to the end. There is, indeed, some flavor of old Goldoni’s garrulity in him, and something of Mary McLane’s ingenuousness. His philosophy, a sort of aloof pessimism, is unmistakably that of the average reflective journalist. He sees that the public is an ass—that the plain people, no matter how ruthlessly they are exploited, quickly forget and then rush eagerly to kiss the heel that has ground them in the mire. He sees all this and gently deplores it, but he harbors no fantastic yearning to reform the world. On the contrary, he seems to sense the fact that this must needs be the fate of the plain people forevermore—that the class led to the slaughter by Caesar, enslaved by the medieval barons and taxed by the money kings of today, must plod on in its harness ever heavy-laden and ever uphill until the end of time.

No such sore problems and philosophies afflict the reader of “THE CIRCU LAR STAIRCASE,” by Mary Roberts Rinehart (Bobbs-Merrill, $1.50). Miss Rinehart is new writer and her welcome should be loud, for she has managed to achieve a story of mystery with both thrills and humor in it. “THE CIRCULAR STAIRCASE” deals with murder, but it is far from gruesome. A delicious lightness of touch, indeed, keeps you in good spirits until the unexpected dénouement knocks you breathless at the close. Miss Rinehart, for some occult reason, has called her villain Paul Armstrong, thus adding another sorrow to the heavy stock of the dramatist of that name. If she ever meets the real Armstrong she will give her felon new appellation, for the author of “Salomy Jane,” for all his train-robber aspect, is really the gentlest of men. I have seen him moved to tears by Kipling ballad, and his worst vice is an indecent fondness for shelled walnuts.

Next, dearly beloved, we come to “HOLY OPRDERS,” a new novel by Marie Corelli (Stokes, $1.50). It is the fashion among reviewers, I believe, to dismiss a new novel by Miss Corelli with superior sneer, coupled, if the inspiration comes, with a cutting epigram. Unluckily, I find myself unable to follow this honorable precedent, for the book’s merits stay my hand. In point of fact, it is decidedly capable performance, and though it deals with English problems, their interest to Americans is not inconsiderable. At the bottom of it is the old but ever engaging conflict between the ideals of a soaring soul and the actualities of a dirty earth. The chief character is a clergyman of the sort one sometimes meets, oftenest in a leaky, galvanized iron church in some smoky parish amid the freight tracks—a man whose Christianity is a real thing, whose highest joy is in service—a steadfast light in the gloom—a true Saviour in his little Judea. This man fights a man’s fight against the ignorance, the vileness, the sloth of the swine about him. In the face of calumny, treachery and failure, he keeps his eyes upon his goal. And in the end there comes his day of triumph—a triumph in ancient St. Paul’s, splendid and unmistakable, with thousands to do him reverence.

But this final apotheosis, I suspect, is mere coup de théatre, contrived to meet the orthodox demands of the Corellian audience. Miss Corelli, herself, there is reason to believe, sees the vanity of it all, and in this very fact lies my excuse for rating her much above her customary valuation. On the last page, after the crowd has left St. Paul’s to its ghosts, and the preacher’s voice is stilled, his son stalks gloomily down the street.

“And you, Laurence,” says one by his side, “will you also one day be a famous preacher?”

“Never!” cries Laurence. “I shall never enter the Church!”

Miss Corelli qualifies this in the last paragraph of all, and allows her hero’s boy a measure of his father’s sublime faith in man; but reading it all fairly, one cannot help feeling that some realization of the eternal futility of sacrifice—of the bitter truth that, in the long run, man cannot do much to help his fellows because they don’t want to be helped—is fretting the novelist’s mind. One cannot help feeling, again, that Miss Corelli’s drab life at Stratford-on-Avon is robbing English literature of interesting things. Were she not so hopelessly superhuman and remote, I should advise her to spend six months in the chorus of Broadway operetta. It would do her no serious harm, and it might shock her into writing truly great novel.

In “PETER,” by F. Hopkinson Smith (Scribners, $1.50), the idealism runs clean and clear. It is a delightful world that Mr. Smith inhabits—a world made up of loyalty, true love and simple faith. Old Peter, his hero (he insists, by the way, that Peter is not his hero), is one of the most lovable and poetic of his creations. By day Peter labors in a bank, where he has been handling dollars, without stain, for thirty years. By night and on Sundays and legal holidays, he mingles with genial souls, radiates charity and brings young lovers together.

The lover whose affairs particularly engage him is a youngster after his own heart—a young man who will settle down, you feel, into benign old age and become a second Peter. There is not much plot in the book, but what there is is not without its grip. More important, by far, are the sounds of young laughter, the flash of bright eyes and the scent of old-fashioned flowers. I know newspaper poet who on reading the book ascended straightway into the clouds and wrote a poem upon it. But such exalted moods and appreciations in this weary old world are evanescent, just as books like “PETER” are few. Next morning, when the poet found that an honest union printer had mutilated his metre, he swore like politician.

In “WALDO TRENCH AND OTHERs,” by Henry B. Fuller (Scribners, $1.50), one finds seven meandering short stories in the later manner of William Dean Howells. Mr. Fuller deals chiefly with those queer, dreaming, unhappy Americans who haunt the pensions of Florence and Pisa and try to convince themselves that home is not sweet. He has much of Mr. Howells’s gentle, dephlogisticated humor, and not little of Mr. Howells’s skill at finding the inevitable word. In his characterizations he is less satisfactory, for the touring Yankees he sends into Tuscany to torture the souls of their exiled countrymen are far from convincing. The stories, as whole, reveal craftsmanship rather than vocation. The tempo is ever allegretto con delicatezza.

(Source: Google Books, “The Smart Set,”

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