The Last of the Victorians

H.L. Mencken

The Smart Set/November, 1909

THE tears shed, a few months back, over the biers of George Meredith and Algernon Charles Swinburne were shed a bit too soon. It was the theory of the mourners who shed them that they were mourning the passing of an epoch—that the earth, as it closed over novelist and poet, was taking unto itself the last of the Victorians. But they were wrong, these wailers and gnashers of teeth, and their copious lamentation was in vain, for beyond the salt seas, observing the world from his watch tower in a little prairie town, there yet dwelt, in all the vigor of early middle age, a Victorian a million times as victorian as either of the pair of long lingering Victorians there and then laid to rest. His name was William Allen White, and he is still with us. If he lives as long as Tennyson, and does not reform, our grandchildren will see the Victorian era gasping out its last breath in the year 1951. And eighty-three is no great age in Kansas. It may be 1960, or even 1970, indeed, before the world hears the last of Honest Poverty, Chaste Affection and Manly Tears.

The Thackeray of “Pendennis” and “Vanity Fair” was the archetype of the Victorian poet and philosopher, even more so than the Dickens of “David Copperfield” or the Tennyson of “Lady Clara Vere de Vere,” and it is this Thackeray that lives again in Mr. White. The externals of his method suggest the idea forcibly: he has all of Thackeray’s fondness for stopping to harangue his audience ; he has taken over, as a matter of legitimate inheritance, all of Thackeray’s showman’s kit of dolls, puppets, wires, footlights and drop curtains; and in more than one place his style is a miraculously exact imitation of Thackeray at his worst.

But not only the externals of “A Certain Rich Man” {Macmillan, $1.50) make the ghost of Titmarsh walk. The resemblance lies deeper than that; it is in Mr. White’s fundamental concepts, in his morality, in his attitude toward the phenomena of life. His point of view is essentially feminine. He esteems yielding above victory, sentiment above reality, piety above progress. Of the gorgeous drama which lies in the ruthless struggle for existence he seems to have no notion whatever. Even in the fact of death itself—and, like a good Victorian, he indulges in a wholesale massacre of characters—he sees nothing mysterious, staggering, awful, inexplicable, but only a good excuse for a sentimental orgy.

But before elaborating this objection it may be well to take a look at Mr. White’s book, for the words I have already written may appear to denounce it, out of hand, as rubbish. This is by no means my intention. Even my allegation that its style suggests Thackeray at his worst is not to be taken as unmitigated condemnation, for Thackeray at his worst was still a craftsman of the first rank. Search “ Lovell the Widower” and “The Newcomes” from end to end, and however loud an occasional paragraph may make you yell, you must still admit that it is not quite so bad as Hall Caine at his best. Mr. White has absorbed some measure of this superb craftsmanship, along with the oozy philosophy accompanying it. The background of his story is laid on with remarkable skill, and in all those scenes in which he deals with his people as large groups there is abundant insight and reality. No other novelist has depicted more intelligibly that flood of evangelical passion which led up to the Civil War, and none other in America, to my knowledge, has drawn a more vivid and credible picture of battle than that which is to be found in the third chapter of “A Certain Rich Man.” But when Mr. White comes to deal with his characters as individuals, his sentimentality overcomes him and they cease to be human.

The scene of the story is Kansas and the central personage is John Barclay, the son of an abolitionist. John’s father, back in the early fifties, left fortune and comfort in New England to preach the gospel of freedom on the border. He was murdered for his pains, and so, at the opening of the story, we find John a barefoot boy in the little town of Sycamore Ridge, out on the dusty prairie—the son of a gaunt, undaunted, unforgetting widow, the town washerwoman. Until he is well into his teens there is little to distinguish the boy from other boys. He runs away to the war, gets a wound which lames him for life and is dragged home. He falls in love with a little girl and carries her image with him to college. One day she dies—“and so,” says Mr. White, “his heart curdled.”

It is the business of the story to show us the lamentable consequences of this curdling. John comes home with a license to practice law and a determination to make the world his oyster. The town of Sycamore Ridge is growing fast—not booming, but growing. A bank has been started and John’s deposit slip for $178.53— the first slip received on the opening day—is framed for all to see. The president of the bank is the father of John’s best friend, and in the circumstance there is opportunity for John. He seizes it by borrowing from the bank to finance a scheme for robbing the adjacent peasants of their wheat lands. The scheme wobbles, and the old banker, to save his bank, is forced into forgery. It is the first sign of that blight which is to radiate from John all the days of his life.

His second victim is the fiancee of his best friend and own sister to his lost love. The best friend has been sent to New York to help promote John’s plans, and in his absence an insinuating stranger with money begins to pay addresses to the neglected lady. John encourages her to treachery, and justifies himself on the ground that, without the stranger’s money all hands will face bankruptcy and even jail. Here the cloven hoof appears and John stands forth as the veritable villain of the old romances. Thereafter his pathway to millions is marked by ruthless sacrifices. He piles up his gold, but broken hearts lie all about. He becomes an insatiable monster of opulence, devouring everything in reach. In the end he devours his own happiness, and then comes Mr. White’s cue for a parting saturnalia of sentiment. Where once ran sweat and blood, there now comes a cloudburst of tears. The last chapters drip; the very last words of the book are “the tears, the tears!”

The Victorian flavor in this improbable fiction is to be accounted for, however, not by the actual incidents—not even, indeed, by John’s Dickens like and entirely incredible repentance toward the close—but by the banal philosophy underlying them. If Mr. White merely told his story, we would marvel at John as a new and inconceivable sort of plutocrat and let it go at that, but he insists upon reading the lesson for the day, earnestly and incessantly, as he ambles on. This lesson, stripped of verbiage, may be reduced to the following proposition : That the impulse which leads a young man of, say, twenty-four years to seek marriage with some particular young woman of, say, twenty-two, is by overwhelming odds the most elevating, valuable, noble, honorable and godlike impulse native to the human consciousness. Beside it, in the view of Mr. White, the impulse of John Barclay to rise out of the squalor of his childhood, to acquire wealth for the power that goes with it and to use that power to reorganize the food supply of a nation—to do things, in brief, that no other man had ever been able to do since the beginning of the world—this impulse, says Mr. White, was and is not only paltry, but also downright felonious.

I have no doubt that every high school girl in the United States will agree with him, but it seems to me improbable that he will gain many disciples among the more reflective members of the other sex. Whatever his magic at the matinee, the fact remains that Romeo Montague was of vastly less originality and consideration as a man, and, in consequence, of vastly less bulk as a hero than Christopher Columbus. Montague’s supreme achievement, the most stupendous thanks he could offer up for the gift of life, was to die of love, and after he had died the world rolled on as before. But after Columbus had planted his banner on the coral strand of San Salvador the world began to revolve in a new and superior manner. The life of the one man was no more valuable nor important than that of a theologian, but that of the other was worth a continent. Ah, cries the sentimental Mr. White, but is success, or even human progress, as great a boon as happiness? My answer to that is that happiness and the sensation of success are so nearly alike that I, for one, have never been able to tell them apart. The more difficult and enviable and more nearly unique the success, the greater the happiness. Not even one of Mr. White’s young lovers, I take it, would see much in love—in its psychic, as op posed to its purely Biblical aspect—if it involved no joy of chase and thrill of capture.

But let us have done with all this gloomy burrowing into the metaphysic. Over all remains the fact that Mr. White has tried to write a sentimental story and has succeeded diabolically. If you are a sentimentalist it will delight you; if you are not it will amuse you. In either case you will probably read every word of it, for a thunderous sincerity and no little skill are in it. The author does not write of some unreal Zenda, Florodora or other stage land, but of the sun-baked, unwashed Kansas that he knows and loves. His characters, whatever their psychological failings, always remain assertively American. And being Americans, they are as sentimental as their creator, for sentimentality is our national weakness, as bigotry is our national vice.

The author writes English with a journeyman’s assurance. His climaxes are built up admirably, and there is a certain lyric fluency in his sentences. But now and again a curious fault reveals itself. I refer to his fondness for beginning sentences with conjunctions. On page seven, for example, there are ten sentences, and six of them begin with “and,” “but” or “for”—a pernicious affectation, making for tedious singsong.

“The Bill-Toppers,” by Andri1 Castaigne (Bobbs- Merrill, $1.50), is a romance of vaudeville, in which practically all the characters are performers. The heroine is a trick cyclist and the hero is a gentleman who risks his life twice daily for the wages of a John Hays Hammond. It is a novel that explores a new field, and Mr. Castaigne manages to make that field mildly interesting. But why didn’t he call his book “The Headliners” instead of “The Bill-Toppers”? Certainly, when one uses slang, it is well to use slang comprehensible to the ultimate consumer.

“The Making of Bobby Burnit,” by George Randolph Chester (BobbsMerrill, $1.50), is a fantastic story of American life, in which one of the principal characters is a dead man. But the soul of this dead man lives after him in the form of a last will and testament, in which, beside the customary legal balderdash, there appears a store of wise counsel for his son. How the son profits thereby is told by Mr. Chester in thirty racy chapters. These chapters are as devoid of literary polish as a want ad, but anyone who denies that they are amusing is beyond all reach of farce.

In “David Bran” (Page, $1.50) Morley Roberts “presents in a new light,” according to the canned review on the cover, “the old problem of a man and two women.” Mr. Roberts, unhappily, is rather unfortunate in the choice of his characters. He makes them simple fisher folk, and yet, by the exigencies of his study, he must fill them with exceedingly complicated thoughts and emotions. The result is an air of nature faking and an irresistible impulse on the part of the reader to laugh in the author’s most solemn moments. At one place David Bran, leaving home for a stroll and expecting to find himself a father on his return, seeks out and makes love to the Other Woman. “I love my Kate,” he soliloquizes, “my wife, my wife!”—but—“I could cry aloud for Lou.” In the language of real folk of David’s elemental organization the thought is commonly expressed more vulgarly, thus: “I love my wife, but O you kid!” Altogether, a story in which the author labors rather heavily to be “powerful.”

“The Goose Girl,” by the lighthearted and unquenchable Harold MacGrath (Bobbs-Merrill, $1.50), is a fairy tale spread out over 383 unenlightening but far from stupid pages. The author doesn’t care a hang for mental processes, soul struggles and psychic problems; his sole business is to get on with his story. It is the old story of Cinderella, with a Cinderella more beautiful and charming than ever before and a hero more magnificent. A felicitous amalgamation of Grimm and Hawkins, of Wonderland and Zenda.

Miss Miriam Michelson is nothing if not ingenious, and in “Michael Thwaite’s Wife” (Doubleday-Page, $1.50) she proves it anew. The central characters are our old friends the Confused Twins. One of them is an angel and the other a devil, but in mere bodily architecture they are identical. Being the exact equal of her sister in pulchritude, and having, in addition, the advantage of her devilishness, the devil captures the Man, only to desert him later on for Another. So far the story bears a close resemblance to all other tales of Confused Twins, but now Miss Michelson begins to put on the high gear. The result is a series of thrills, surprises and ambuscades—in short, a literary joy ride.

“Half a Chance,” by Frederic S. Isham (Bobbs-Merrill, $1.50), is an agreeable fiction which maintains the Socialistic thesis (though perhaps Mr. Isham is no more a Socialist than I) that a man is the victim of his environment. Give the poor better dinners and more time to read books, say the Socialists, and they will cease to offend the laws and the senses. Mr. Isham’s hero proves it. At the start he is a low, coarse fellow—a fellow so low and coarse, indeed, that the police decide to exile him for his country’s good. On his way out to Botany Bay he is shipwrecked. A library of books is washed ashore upon his desert isle, and he proceeds to read them. Half of them are law books. When he gets back to civilization he is a serious, dignified and learned barrister, and the heroine is very glad to marry him. Altogether a brisk and entertaining story, with not too much reality in it.

“Sixpenny Pieces,” by A. Neil Lyons (Lane, $1.50), is a study of human existence in the East End of Lon don. Here we behold men and women at the nadir of efficiency. Born sick in mind and body, their sole purpose in life seems to be to breed beings more wretched even than themselves. The charity which keeps them alive is the same silly, fanatical charity that engendered their caste; they are living proofs that our Christian civilization would do more for the race if it were grounded less upon poetical bathos and more upon natural laws. Mr. Lyons’s book is not a tract but an attempt to set forth reality. It makes gloomy reading, but there is the grip of tragedy in it.

“The Score,” by Lucas Malet (Dutton, $1.50), is made up of two short stories “Out in the Open” and “Miserere Nobis.” “Out in the Open” is an English tale in the manner of the late John Oliver Hobbes. The characters are three, an eminent English actress with a past, a playwright who makes love to her like a philosopher and a rising young statesman who makes love to her like a sailor. The conversation of all three, even in their most passionate moments, is made up of elaborate epigrams, as carefully worded as a mortgage and as empty of substance as a memorial address in Congress. No doubt a certain sort of skill is needed to construct such vapid foolishness, and no doubt that skill is rather rare, but that it is also valuable to the world I am unable to affirm.

In reading “In the Shadow of the Peaks,” by Stata B. Couch (Cochrane, $1.50), I got as far as page twelve. There, in plain letters, appeared the following remark of the hero:


“You have touched upon my weak point. I have a theory, a pet theory, and it is along spook lines.”


Thereupon I closed the book with a groan, and so I can tell you no more about it. It is an attractive, well printed book of 320 pages, bound in green, and for all I know, it may be a masterpiece comparable to “Barry Lyndon,” “Tom Jones” or “Typhoon.” But you will have to find out for yourself. No more psychical researching in mine! I have had enough!

“A Branch of May,” by Lizette Woodworth Reese (Mosher, $1.25), is a slim but very attractive little reprint of some of Miss Reese’s best lyrics. The prim gray of the cover well mirrors the emotional quality of the verse within. There is no note of passion in it, no echo of Herrick’s gay song; the love with which it deals is commonly little more than a memory of cold kisses. And yet a suggestion of Herrick will not down. It appears again and again, in tricks of phrase, in images and turns of thought. To Herrick the world was a flower garden, and so it is to Miss Reese.

It may be objected to in this poet that her songs show too little diversity of key, that their mood is too constantly somber. This objection would be valid if urged against a writer of greater pretensions, but Miss Reese’s verses are put forth so modestly and so rarely that in her case we may well be thankful without question for whatever she gives us. She is almost a stranger to the magazines; her books are few and thin; her whole work, I believe, scarcely comprises a hundred poems. And yet in that scant collection there are beauties of a rare and perfect sort, beauties that set the author in the very first rank of American singers. Her one sonnet, “Tears,” is beyond all risk of overpraise. Keats himself would have been ready to acknowledge it, not only willingly, but proudly.

Another Southern poet whose best work touches the heights is Robert Loveman. Loveman, it must be admitted, is at his best but seldom. In his latest book, “The Blushful South and Hippocrene” (Lippincott, $1.00), there are many stanzas which show no greater merit than a workmanlike finish. They are triumphs of verbal gem cutting—and nothing more. But we may well forgive so excellent a poet his displays of mere virtuosity. He has “It Isn’t Raining Rain to Me” behind him, and that is glory enough for one man.

The name of Tom McInnes is new to me. His first book of verses comes down from Montreal in a startling red cover and with eight square inches of eulogy from the Canadian critics on the wrapper. Within there is a volcanic miscellany of good and bad: a rhapsody upon the bloody death of a Yukon Sappho; a ballad with the sweet refrain, “But what the hell, Bill, what the hell!”; a dozen bad imitations of Kipling, Bret Harte, even Dante Gabriel Rossetti; an astonishingly excellent imitation of Walt Whitman. It is the wild life of mining camp, trail and desert, of Farthest West and Farthest North, that Mr. McInnes sings. He has thrown the Ten Commandments overboard, and a lot of human statutes with them. He is not afraid of the obvious thought and the vulgar word; his dithyrambs are ever close to the ground. Now and then, reading his stanzas, you will laugh, but more often their wild earnestness, their breezy realism and their sheer color will get under your hide. The book is called “Lonesome Bar” (Desbarats, $1.00).

“Satan,” by Lewis Sperry Chafer (Gospel Pub. House, $1.00), is the most sympathetic and illuminating study of the General Manager of Hell that has appeared since the death of the late Emanuel Swedenborg. Mr. Chafer is no campaign biographer, rushing into print with a hurried, scissors-and-paste eulogy of his hero; neither is he a misguided scaramouch, seeking to provoke the willing snicker with cheap ribaldry. His attitude toward Satan is always reverent; like St. Anselm, Gregory the Great, Vincent of Beauvais and other primeval laborers in the same field, he is fascinated by the very villainy of the man. In all its history, he says, the cosmos has never seen another such subtle scoundrel. He is the emperor of chicanery, of hocus-pocus, of false pretenses, of cold blooded, calculating treachery. To escape his foul machinations one must sleep with an eye open and fit one’s conscience with a hair trigger. There is much material in this book that the student will not find in previous biographies of Satan. Mr. Chafer has discovered, for example, that Psychical Research, as it is practiced today by many a whiskered professor and desiccated old maid, is really a device of Nick for luring the unwary down his incandescent chutes. The same thing is true, he says, of Professor James’s quasi-philosophy of Pragmatism. This being the case, there appear the highest theological excuse and precedent for burning Professor James at the stake. I, for one, should assist at the arson with sincere delight.

“The Orchestral Instruments and What They Do,” by Daniel Gregory Mason (Novello, $1.00), is an excellent little primer for those folks whose love of music is unaccompanied by any knowledge whatever. It begins with an exposition of the elements of acoustics, and it goes on to a description, seriatim, of the fiddles, pipes, horns and tom-toms of the modern orchestra. Mr. Mason sets out by assuming that his reader is in the depths of ignorance, and accordingly his opening instructions are elaborately painstaking. After showing a picture of a man playing a first violin, for example, he proceeds, a few pages further on, to show a picture of a man playing a second violin. This magnificent preciseness, however, is not kept up, for when he comes to the woodwind, he shows only one clarinet, and the reader is forced to dig out of the text the architectural difference between a clarinet in B and one in A. Again, the differences between a viola and a bratsche and a bassoon and a fagotto are left to the text.

In the end there is an excellent chapter of advice, in which beginners are urged to make a practice of poring over orchestra scores. It is the common superstition that scores are only for the elect, who are supposed to be able to read them as fluently as an ordinary man reads newspaper headlines. In sober truth the elect struggle as diabolically with a page of Strauss as the beginner struggles with a page of Haydn. Mr. Mason is right: let the beginner begin with Haydn and then keep on. He will learn a lot, and he will have a lot of fun.

A new series of reprints of the older English dramatists, just beginning to appear under the name of “The Swan Dramatists “ (Sturgis and Walton Co.), brings the number of current editions up to three. The excellent Mermaid series is deservedly popular, and the Belles Lettres series, edited by Professor George P. Baker of Harvard, is fast making its way. The Mermaid books are notable for their accurate texts and their quite extraordinary typographical beauty, while those of the Belles Lettres edition are chiefly valuable for their excellent notes and bibliographies. The Swan series, which begins with Christopher Marlowe’s “Doctor Faustus” (45 cents), must depend for success upon its convenient form and its cheapness. The introduction to the first volume is a mere abridgment from A. W. Ward and the notes are inconsequential, but the text is clearly printed and the book has the attractive handiness of the Temple Shakespeare. The new edition, in a word, appears to be planned for the reader rather than for the student. And an edition of this sort has long been wanted.

“Six Masters of Disillusion,” by Algar Thorold (Dutton, $1.50), is a book which has its most interesting chapter at the end. In the chapters before that Dr. Thorold essays to expound the private codes of half a dozen rebels against the law and the prophets—Fontenelle, Merimee, Fabre, Huysmans, Maeterlinck and Anatole France—and then, at the end in a brief epilogue he speaks for himself. This epilogue is a masterly presentation in a few paragraphs of the functions and limitations of philosophy. The search for the truth, says M. Thorold, is not an enterprise that appeals to the average man, for his yearning for the ultimate verities is always less pressing than his yearning for a rock and a refuge. Even the true philosopher, in his weaker moments, sometimes feels an atavistic impulse to seek shelter in the old faiths of his race. But, fortunately for humanity, there are extraordinary men in whom this impulse appears but rarely. These men are the captains in the march of progress. They get little honor while they live—in the sense of popular appreciation—and their doubts often torture them, but it is plain that in the long run they serve their fellow men as no mere emperors and high priests can ever do. The comforts of faith may seem to make life more bearable, but it is disillusion that makes wider and wider the gap between man and the ape.

Thorold’s choice of disillusionists is scarcely satisfying to the Anglo-Saxon reader. His nomination of Fontenelle will meet a hearty aye, but why Huysmans and Maeterlinck ? Since the Revolution, indeed, France has learned more than she has taught of actuality. Her most daring adventurers have seemed academicians when compared to Ibsen and Huxley, Haeckel and Nietzsche.

“George Meredith,” by J. A. Hamilton (Kennerley, $4.00), is neither biography nor criticism, but the raw material of both. The author’s aim is to make a digest of all the magazine articles, books, eulogies, philippics and letters to the editor written about Meredith since the year ’51, and this aim he achieves nobly in four hundred closely printed pages. Despite the lamentable gaps in the biographical portion, the book gives a vivid and no doubt accurate picture of Meredith the man. We see him chiefly in his old age—no longer the austere artist, but a genial and likable oldster, wandering down his Surrey lanes and chattering gaily of all things under the sun. Mr. Hamilton has unearthed, classified and labeled a rich store of early Meredithiana. He has scotched forever a host of mendacious legends and rid the novelist’s life of much of the mystery that once clustered round it. Not only to the critic but also to the general reader his book is useful and agreeable.


After the Cataclysm —

by H. Percy Blanchard. (Cochrane, $1.25)

Another of those dull, prophetic romances of the future.


Flying Plover—

by G. E. Theodore Roberts. (Page, $1.00)

A book of Labrador folk stories, charmingly told for children.


’Neath Austral Skies —

by Louis Becke. (Lippincott $1.50)

Another volume of Mr. Becke’s South Sea sketches. His fiction, true enough, has a prosy and stupid air, but his chapters of personal reminiscence easily make up for this shortcoming.


A Slight Indiscretion —

by N. Y. Homer. (Cochrane, $1.25) Flapdoodle.


Sicily, the Garden of the Mediterranean —

by W. S. Monroe. (Page, $2.30)

An excellent handbook for the tourist, with no little interest for the fireside traveler. Mr. Monroe tells his story simply and directly, and plainly knows his ground. The pictures really illustrate.


A Modern Valkyrie—

by Emily Svenson. (Cochrane, $1.25)

The philosophical opinions of a Swedish servant girl. A literary curiosity of the first water.


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