The Literary Clinic

H.L. Mencken

The Smart Set/March, 1909

Three books designed to reduce and mitigate the horrors of human existence are stretched upon the operating table and invite our exploratory surgery. The first is a treatise upon marriage in all its branches; the second is a tract upon the science of eating, and the third presumes to teach us how to sleep.

I shall lay bare the contents of the marriage guide first, because matrimony is a far more interesting topic than either eating or sleeping, even to the married man. It is, indeed, the most interesting topic in all the world, and not even death itself has a more chronic or more insidious fascination for the roving mind. This, I suppose, is because matrimony, while perpetually imminent and menacing, is yet a bit short of inevitable. If, for instance, we represent the probability of dissolution by the mathematical sign of infinity, then the probability of marriage will be infinity minus x—and in that elusive, immeasurable, intangible x lies half the joy of being alive. To the bachelor it is a symbol of hope, for he holds to a firm faith that he, personally, will escape. And to the spinster it is a sign of hope, too, for she clings to a faith equally firm that she, personally, will have no such bad luck. Thus each sex sees the nuptial ring as a gambler sees the spinning wheel—as something full of eternal chances and hazards, of unending “ifs” and “buts.”

Mrs. Maud Churton Braby has got some flavor of this magic mystery into “Modern Marriage, and How to Bear It” (Kennerley, $1.25).

One hurries on for page after page, forced ever onward by a feverish expectation that the solution will be found in the next chapter—and then, of a sudden, comes “The End,” and the whole problem is left hanging in mid air. “Be very tolerant,” says Mrs. Braby in conclusion; “expect little, give gladly, put respect before everything, cultivate courtesy—and love one another all you can.” A fair Daniel come to judgment!

Mrs. Braby, of course, does not arrive at this banal verdict without some show of hearing and discussing a lot of evidence and argument. She has chapters upon all the minor divisions of the main problem, and in one place she weighs several proposed substitutes for monogamy. Of the latter the most interesting is a scheme she calls duogamy. It contemplates a menage of four—two wives and two husbands. Tiring of the excellent but soulless cooking of Wife No. 1, Husband No. 1 may move across the hall to the lair of Wife No. 2, whose talent is for piano playing and philosophy. Meanwhile, it is presumed, Husband No. 2 has grown aweary of Chopin and Nietzsche, and is ready, both physically and psychically, for a course of Irish stew and hot waffles. Mrs. Braby discusses this plan discreetly, in the form of a parable—and then quite abruptly dismisses it. No doubt she suddenly remembers, on reflection, that it has been tested in recent years by many a valiant hero of research almost as thoroughly as monogamy, and found to be just as unsatisfactory.

One puts down the book with keen regret that Mrs. Braby has nothing more promising to offer. West of the Adriatic the matrimonial problem presses painfully, and the shrieks of those doomed to wrestle with it mount daily to high heaven. Between celibacy tempered by polygamy, and monogamy tempered by vain regret, there is little choice and no middle ground. And, as everyone knows, both leave much to be desired. The first, indeed, is fast becoming dangerous to life and limb, and the second is often too horrible to contemplate.


The eating book is by that perennial philosopher and master of all the arts, Upton Sinclair, and the words upon its title page are: “Good Health and How We Won It” (Stokes, $1.20). In the writing of the book Mr. Sinclair had the aid of Michael Williams, who is also offered as a sort of Exhibit A in proof of its argument. Mr. Sinclair, it appears, is a food faddist of a tolerant and magnificent sort. That is to say, he is in favor of every professor who offers something unpleasant, no matter what may be the precise nature of his offering. Thus he gives a hearty “Aye!” to Professor Fletcher, the multi-chewer; and another to Professor Metchnikoff, the poet of skimmed milk and sauerkraut; and yet another to Professor Mendel, the Sherlock Holmes of the deadly milk can. In the end he strikes a sort of average, and evolves thereby a scientific bill of fare made up, in the main, of zweibach, eggs and embalmed raisins, with Battle Creek breakfast foods on the side.

Mr. Sinclair says that these things have made him as frisky as a three-year-old, and that, not many years ago, they saved the life of Mr. Williams. The reader, of course, will accept this statement with respect, but it is possible that, in a meditative moment, the thought may occur to him that, had Messrs. Sinclair and Williams embraced instead of scorned the felonious beef steak, the former, today, might have been as frisky as a two-year-old, or even a one-year-old, and the latter, instead of being merely alive, might have been almost immortal. Seriously, Mr. Sinclair offers no proof whatever that his awe-inspiring diet is fit food for human beings. All he proves is that, eating it and living in the open air in Bermuda, he has managed to keep well. The answer to that is that any man living in the yellow sunlight of Bermuda is apt to keep well, whether his dinners be made up of breakfast foods or of lobsters a la Newburg.


Next comes the Rev. Lyman P. Powell, with a treatise on “The Art of Natural Sleep” (Putnam, $1). Mr. Powell sprang into the limelight a few years ago with an excellent, if somewhat savage, counterblast to Christian Science, but since then the Emmanuel Movement has ensnared him, and today he preaches a system of therapy which is just as magical as Christian Science, and just as notable for astounding assumptions and extraordinary conclusions.

The Powell cure for insomnia, like the Eddy cure, depends for its usefulness upon the anesthetic effect of theology. Put any man into a comfortable seat and begin preaching at him—and in ten minutes he will grow drowsy. This is a fact as familiar and as indubitable as the fact that all bipeds have two feet. It is proved anew in our houses of worship every Sabbath morning. Mr. Powell, however, offers two valuable improvements upon the ordinary method of turning it to account. In the first place, he substitutes a comfortable Morris chair for the customary church pew, which is hard and uncomfortable; and in the second place, he advises that the theology be recited in “a low monotone,” which must be far more effective, it is plain, than the nasal elocution of the average ecclesiastic.

As for the actual spell that Mr. Powell recommends to operators, it is quite frankly reminiscent of that Eddian formula which he so joyfully lambasted in his former book: “Universal Mind or Universal Spirit is wholesomeness and love, harmony and power . . . It is possible, in the exercise of the free will with which you are in the nature of the case endowed, to fill up the soul with morbidness . . . so that there is no room in it for God’s wholesomeness . . . (A stanza of nebulous poetry here) . . . You do not sleep because you are all replete with the very Thou” . . . If this is not Christian Science, from the original pellucid fount, I offer my most humble apologies and abject obeisance to the reverend gentleman.

Of course, there is a kernel of truth in all this transcendental juggling with words. It lies in the fact that a low, monotonous murmur, by distracting the mind from the ideas which engage it, without offering any other intelligible idea in their place, produces drowsiness. If you doubt this, stretch yourself out upon a couch and have someone begin reading the table of logarithms to you, or a column of want ads, in a muffled, mysterious voice. Believe me, either of these things will put you to sleep just as quickly and just as soundly as Mr. Powell’s catalogue of dubious dogmas.


Richard G. Badger, of Boston, is the only American publisher who pays steady heed to poets. He seems to love them, and this love of his includes the bad as well as the good, the writers of Christian Endeavor hymns as well as the bards of passion and despair. Once a week, or even oftener, he casts out his net, and always when he pulls it in there in a new rhymester wriggling in its meshes.

Naturally enough, the genius of most of these poets is of the ultraviolet sort, and so lies beyond our brute perceptions, but now and then Badger ensnares one whose song is worth hearing. His latest prize is Henry Percival Spencer, author of “The Lilies,” and a very passable rhapsodist. Spencer’s philosophy is stale and some of his stanzas are nothing more than prose chopped up into lengths, but now and then he produces a couplet or a single line that sings itself into the memory.


Exhibit A:

And morning brushed aside her veil

And rose, still blushing at her dream.


Exhibit B :

The ghosts of stars are in the morn.


It is my private opinion that Exhibit A, had it flashed one wintry day through the head of old Ben Jonson, would have made him glow with inward sunlight. And Exhibit B, I fancy, would have given a thrill of joy to—but you had better fill in the name yourself.

No, Spencer is not a gem of purest ray serene, but neither is his poetizing a waste of time. If he keeps at it, I venture to predict, and learns to be more wary of mere words, he will win no mean place as a poet.


A bard of a different sort is William Stanley Braithwaite, author of “The House of Falling Leaves” (Luce, $1.25). Spencer offers us a mixture of extremes; Braithwaite sticks to the middle ground. That is to say, he is a safe and sane metrician, whose verse is always graceful and workmanlike and always devoid of inspiration. At the end of his book he thanks God, in rhyme, for “the great gift of song,” but his gratitude, I fear, is rather gratuitous. He mistakes, in brief, the impulse to write poetry for the divine afflatus itself. The two things are separate and distinct.

Gloom is Braithwaite’s customary mood, and this is the case, too, with Charles Hanson Towne, author of “The Quiet Singer” (Dodge, $1.25). But there the resemblance ends, for Towne is greatly the better workman, and to his craftsmanship he adds more than once a spark of the true fire. This is most apparent, perhaps, in some of his shorter pieces—in particular, in a group of eight quatrains. Here we have eight almost perfect miniatures. They leave a sense of fleeting, half-seen beauty—a feeling of dim, in definable pleasure. Father Tabb might have written them.

In a sequence of eleven short songs Mr. Towne tries to show us the poetry in New York’s blatant but magnificent roar. Here his choice of form handicaps him, just as it did Charles G. D. Roberts, in “New York Nocturnes,” before him. The song of New York is not for the lyric reed pipe and exquisite rhyme; it demands, as it were, elbow room and a voice of brass. Whether or not a Homer will ever rise up to give it form is beyond prognostication. Meanwhile, it is something to have these modest but melodious at tempts.


An excellent antitoxin for the Fourth of July orator is Professor Barrett Wendell’s “The Privileged Classes” (Scribners, $1.25). It is Professor Wendell’s idea that the only privileged class in the United States, in the true meaning of the term, is that class whose members belong to trades unions. What is a privileged class? It is “a body of people permitted by custom, and often by positive law as well, not only to enjoy immunities of various kinds from the political and social burdens borne by the generality of their compatriots, but also to possess opportunities for various agreeable careers from which unprivileged mortals are debarred.” Well, just consider your typical union man. Isn’t he a member of a close corporation, whose only discernible object is to stamp out all free competition and make its members superior to the laws of natural selection and supply and demand? Professor Wendell thinks so, and it may be said for him that he comes dangerously near proving his case. The chief aim of every union, indeed, is to protect and defend incompetence, which is always punished, outside the union ranks, by swift and heavy penalties. In the whole history of unionism in America there are not a dozen instances of a union making any effort, direct or indirect, to improve the professional efficiency of its members—say, by expelling those who are notoriously incompetent. On the contrary, all the money collected is employed in forcing the general public to take their efficiency for granted. If it actually existed, there would be little complaint, but, as Professor Wendell shows, it is often largely theoretical.

The difference between the coddled workman and the malefactor of swollen fortune is that the latter has no standing in law. In a word, he is officially a criminal, and very often he actually goes to jail. But the union man’s right to exploit and pillage the public is protected by statute. If, through his drunkenness, laziness or blundering, he injures a fellow workman, he is held immune —and his employer must pay the bill. In some States, indeed, the employer must pay for it when the workman injures himself, and Mr. Roosevelt has long advocated that this extraordinary law be made national. It is just such profiting by special laws that constitutes the essence of privilege. The man who merely breaks the law is always vulnerable, but the man whose offense is protected by law cannot be reached and punished until the law that protects him is first overturned. Sometimes this overturning is accomplished by orderly processes, but at other times, as in the case of the French Revolution—a very typical effort to destroy privilege—its destruction involves a political cataclysm.


In his “Aspects of Modern Opera” (Lane, $1.25), Lawrence Gilman maintains the thesis that Debussy’s “Pelleas and Melisande” is a music drama which carries out the plans of Richard Wagner better than Wagner was ever able to carry them out himself. The Sage of Bayreuth, says Mr. Gilman, made a gallant and constant effort to subordinate his music to his drama, but ever and anon a luscious tune began to buzz in his ears, and, for all his struggles, he couldn’t keep it off his music paper. In Debussy there is no such amiable weakness. With him the play is the thing from curtain to curtain, and he never stops the action to tickle our ears with high C’s. At critical moments, indeed, he silences his orchestra altogether, and irons out the melodic line in his voice parts so resolutely that it recalls the haunting pedal point of an auctioneer.

There is a good deal of truth in Mr. Gilman’s argument, but far from proving that Debussy is Wagner’s superior, it may merely prove that Wagner’s art theories were and are impracticable. It is all well enough to talk of reducing the music to the level of the scenery and the strophes, but, all the same, people go to opera houses, not to look at backdrops and gestures, but to hear singing—to hear the soaring, super-delicious wolf tones of the tenor, the sweet shrieks of the soprano and the genial grunts of the gentlemen of Brabant. In those melodramas which have an accompaniment of shiver music for every foul stab and sigh of love the art theories of Wagner are put into execution with absolute and unmerciful literalness, and yet civilized folks cannot be induced to enjoy such plays, despite their vast superiority in sentiment, logic and morals to the ordinary run of grand opera librettos.

But why repine? Mr. Gilman may be wrong—and then again he may be right. Right or wrong, he writes most interestingly, and if one can’t quite accept his valuation of Debussy it is still possible to get a lot of instruction out of those other chapters in his book which deal with the Wagner influence and “Salome.”


“Stokes’s Encyclopedia of Music and Musicians,” by L. J. de Bekker (Stokes, $3), is a 750-page book which effectively bridges the gap between the small music dictionaries and the monumental library of Grove. It is addressed to the layman rather than to the professional musician, and so it devotes a good deal of space to opera plots, conductors and the parlor composers, and comparatively little to the more elusive problems of composition. The field covered by the book is enormous, and the number of articles and definitions is probably not far from 12,000. When it is noted that, with all this comprehensiveness and within his restricted space Mr. de Bekker presents complete lists of the works of all the principal composers, living and dead, the unmerciful assiduity of his condensation may be appreciated. Now and then, of course, this makes his definitions fragmentary and unsatisfactory, and at other times it beguiles him into phrases that are downright misleading, as in his definition of “episode,” for instance. Again, there are omissions. Where is Max Reger? Where is Coleridge-Taylor? But these faults are few, and the earlier musical dictionaries have them in more lavish profusion. Compared to these earlier books, the present one seems very well done indeed. The binding is plain and tough.


My colleague, Mr. Pollock, has already told you in a previous issue of this magazine of the sad blight that fell upon Charles Rann Kennedy’s second play, “The Winterfeast,” when it was presented on Broadway. Now that it has appeared in book form (Harpers, $1.25), the causes of this catastrophe become plain—and it also becomes plain that Mr. Kennedy is a writer of parts. “The Servant in the House” was an excellent pulpit harangue, but a lumbering and unconvincing play. Some of its faults—its prolixity, for example—appear again in “The Winterfeast,” but in many ways the latter drama shows a great advance. Its plan is sound, its climaxes are handled with some skill, and there are good touches, now and then, in the dialogue. The insuperable objection to it, as a stage play, lies in the fact that the great American theater audience has no interest whatever in the obscure psychology of the medieval Icelanders it portrays.

It is agreeable to see so many con temporary plays issuing forth between covers. As soon as we develop a public for printed dramas we shall develop a drama above the taste of the drowsy kaufleute in the orchestra and family circle. But the publishers are working against this desirable consummation by printing and binding their plays too expensively. In France and Germany a contemporary native play, in paper covers, costs a quarter or half a dollar, and translations sell for as little as five cents. Lovers of the drama buy these cheap pamphlets and then have ten or a dozen of them bound together. In the United States the average contemporary play, in insubstantial cloth, costs 75 cents, and some are sold for as much as $1.50. Such prices are inexcusably excessive.

A dramatic critic of sober virtues is Montrose J. Moses, who has just published “Henrik Ibsen: the Man and His Plays” (Kennerley, $1.50). Moses has tried to write, not a book of impressions, but a book of facts, and he has succeeded unusually well. In his 522 pages there is everything about Ibsen that anyone, at any time, could ever desire to know. It is an Ibsen encyclopedia, a library, a literature boiled down. We have Halvorsen’s minute bibliography reduced to foot notes and Archer’s multitudinous introductions done into plain English. Every Ibsen performance of note is here recorded; every incident of Ibsen’s life is here set down; everything ever said of an Ibsen play, in any civilized tongue, is here mentioned. And, withal, Mr. Moses has made a readable book, full of safe and sound criticism. An ambitious plan and an excellent performance.


In “Fighting the Turk in the Balkans,” by Arthur D. Howden Smith (Putnam, $1.50), we have a lucid and straightforward explanation of one subdivision of the Balkan puzzle by a man who took the trouble to go to Macedonia and look into it for himself. Mr. Smith, indeed, actually shouldered a musket, and, as an unofficial member of a war party of Macedonian patriots, discharged it more than once at the terrible Turk. It is his evident belief that his friends acted bravely, and even nobly, in the encounters he describes, but many a reader will fail to follow him to this conclusion. As a matter of fact, one is more apt to get from his book a notion that the Macedonians are a horde of frowsy, bombastic ruffians, made up of one part comic opera tenor and two parts Paris Apache. Mr. Smith’s band began operations by setting fire to a house in which half a dozen Turks were penned, and then proceeded to a career of ambush and assassination. Only once did they fight a stand-up fight—and that time they were walloped. The story is told in good journalese, and Mr. Smith does not overburden it with moral reflections. It makes, indeed, a sort of true dime novel, and recalls vividly those hair-raising volumes which Richard Harding Davis used to write in his days of devilish daring.


Maxim Gorky’s new novel, “The Spy” (Heubsch, $1.50), is a pretentious, but rather unimpressive, study of the Russian revolution. The hero, a dreaming, unwholesome country boy, is tossed into the underworld of a large Russian city, and becomes, by a series of accidents, a member of the secret police. Spying upon revolutionaries, he soon acquires a bit of their fine frenzy himself, and the clash of impulse and duty that follows is too much for him. In the end, after a futile running amuck, he kills himself.

The chief interest of the story lies, not in the hero’s sufferings, but in the picture of Russian life unfolded. This picture, it must be admitted, is marked by many bold and sure touches, and now and then one feels the old horror of “Lodgings for the Night.” But more often Gorky’s effects are built up in the good old, obvious, stop-look-listen style of Poe, and so they fail to horrify. Of that epic sweep, that tremendous reality and significance, that deep understanding of the human brute so conspicuous in “Germinal,” one finds scarcely a trace. Gorky, indeed, is to Zola as a wart is to Ossa.


“The Sovereign Good,” by Helen Huntington (Putnam, $1.50), belongs to a class of novels better known in England than in America. “Dodo” is the archetype of this class, and in every member of it there is some striving for Mr. Benson’s pessimistic wit, and some show of his intimate familiarity with what Anglomaniac Frenchmen call hig leef. And the final note in these books is always that of refined, gentlemanly despair. In “Dodo,” Jack rings Lady Chesterford’s bell, and—“Her Serene Highness left for Paris this morning.” In “The Sovereign Good” the hero and heroine, their romance done, meet by chance at dinner, and—“He thought he had never seen just that look in a woman’s eyes. It haunted him a little after wards.”

The great objection to these books is that they lead us nowhere, and throw no light whatever upon the bitter problems of human life. Their heroes and heroines are no more typical, even in their own narrow circles, than so many strangers from remote planets. To Pendennis our hearts warm because he is the eternal young man, and to Barry Lyndon because he is the eternal rascal, and to Nana because she is the eternal Magdalen, but our interest in the Dodos is always remote and objective, since we never meet them. Fidelia King, in “The Sovereign Good,” is of that sort. She is a woman of thirty-three in love with a boy of twenty-one—and somehow her love never seems quite real. By straining a bit, perhaps one may manage to accept the central fact, but a brief acquaintance with the boy turns it into a mere fantasy. As Mrs. Huntington has drawn the two, indeed, the impossibility of their romance is apparent from the start, and in consequence most of the matter that goes between curtain and curtain fails to arouse curiosity and interest. The story is conceivable, true enough, but if that were a sufficient test even the wooden images that people the pages of Jules Verne would seem human. A true novel must be more than merely conceivable: it must be plausible and probable. And these things “The Sovereign Good” is not.


The Book of the Heart—

by Melanie Alice Weil. (Library Shelf, 75 cents)

A book of rather banal epigrams, decorated by an unnamed artist of exquisite taste and printed by an unnamed master of the art typographical.


Helen Ayr—

by F. Sidney Hayward. (Cochrane, $1.50)

A curious medieval romance, in which Mr. Roosevelt’s sanguinary war upon the Malefactors is described in the form of an allegory.


The Persecution of Stephen Strong—

by Rev. C. E. Babcock, Ph.D. (Broadway Pub. Co., $1)

The story of a preacher’s row with his congrega tion. Comforting reading for the Devil and the excommunicated.


Banzai —

by “Parabellum.” (Baker-Taylor, $1.50)

A somewhat labored account of a Japanese invasion of the United States. Fortunately, the rubber-stamp love story which commonly ac companies yarns of this sort is absent.


Oratory of the South —

Edited by E. DuB. Shurter. (Neale, $3)

An excellent selection from the harangues of the sub-Potomac spellbinders. Proctor Knott’s famous Duluth speech and other delicious things are included.


The Open Air—

by Richard Jefferies. (Lippincott, $1.50).

A series of- tone-poems without music upon the charm of all-outdoors. The scenes are English, but the appeal is to all who love open spaces and the good red sun.


Barselma’s Kiss—

by Marion Beveridge Lee. (Clark, $1.30)

A very bad novel, with an agreeable portrait of the fair author as a frontispiece.


The Book of Winter Sports —

Edited by Edgar and Madge Syers. (Arold, $3)

A veritable encyclopedia of skating, tobogganing, skiing and ice yachting. The various articles are written by experts and there are many illustrations. Altogether an excellent book.


by Florence Taylor Haselden. (Broadway Pub. Co., $1)

A sentimental novelette without the slightest discernible excuse for existence.


The Higher Life in Art—

by John La Farge. (McClure, $5)

A most interesting and valuable statement of a great artist’s creed. Mr. La Farge writes almost as well as he paints. On every page there is keen and sound criticism.


Corrie Who? —

by Maximilian Foster. (Small-Maynard, $1.50)

A story of mystery, told with humor and probabil ity. Well above the average of its class.


The American as He Is—

by Nicholas Murray Butler. (Macmillan, $1)

An attempt, in three essays, to analyze the Ameri can type and temperament. Written for for eigners, but of considerable interest at home. Full of shrewd insight and sound logic.


Health, Strength and Happiness—

by C. W. Saleeby, M.D. (Kennerley, $1.50)

A book of sound advice to laymen, by a physician eminent in his trade and with a gift for clear writing.


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