The Literary Heavyweight Champion

H.L. Mencken

Smart Set/March, 1910

CHESTERTON is belaboring the iron while it glows. Within a year he has printed a book of essays, another of verses, an elaborate tract in defense of Christianity, a novel of some four hundred pages, a treatise on George Bernard Shaw, an anonymous autobiography and several hundred scattering introductions, newspaper articles, sermons, acrostics, epigrams, limericks and letters to the editor. I often wonder how he finds time to drink all the beer he is reported to consume. Judging from my own experience, beer drinking, like litigation, is one of the slow and laborious arts. The whiskey drinker can swallow his four fingers, pay the man, stop at the lunch counter and resume his merry way all in the space of a few minutes. But the drinker of beer, unless he would strain his rivets and start his plates, must go at it largo and only after due preparation, first selecting a table and a kellner with care and thereafter punctuating his gusty gulps with hiatuses of philosophic meditation. In Munchen the orthodox rate of speed is one kilo an hour, and it takes five kilos, at the least, to make a sitzung. Even in Berlin, where anglomania corrupts the national manners, they stop occasionally to steal a nap and curse the violoncellos.

But perhaps Mr. Chesterton has some secret technique of his own, whereby he manages to drink and write at the same time. I know a lot of literary men who wish they knew that trick. Perhaps, again, he sips his daily draughts drop by drop, by some sort of osmosis. Whatever his plan, it certainly gives him plenty of time to write books, and all these books, it may be said, are well worth reading. The last to reach me is the novel aforesaid, bearing the appellation, “The Ball and the Cross” (Acme, $1.50). Here we have Chesterton at his old sports, making his old arguments for supernaturalism and flinging his old defiances at Messieurs, the Materialists; and here we have, too, all of his ancient paradoxes and wheezes. He is the most amusing controversialist that ever plunged pen into inkpot, and by the same token, he is least convincing. To find his equal as a sophist, one must go back to the early Christian Fathers.

The plot of “The Ball and the Cross” is very simple. An atheist named James Turnbull, residing in London, is consumed by sorrow over the fact that his crusade against holiness fails to inflame the public mind. Outside his little shop on Ludgate Hill, wherein he publishes a blasphemous little paper, he sticks up handbills exposing the fallacies of Christianity, but no one notices them. They make not a single convert, and worst of all, they provoke not a single protest from the pious. But one day a medieval Scotch Catholic named Evan Maclan, idly passing the place, stops to read a display-type essay on the Immaculate Conception. Turnbull’s appallingly unholy explanation of that miracle turns Maclan’s liver to water, but he reads on bravely to the end. Then he picks up a cobblestone and heaves it through the window.

Well, the result of that burst of passion is pleasant to both sides, for it gives each fanatic a palpable foeman. Turnbull is delighted that his efforts have at last aroused the godly, and Maclan thanks God that he has at last found a heretic to slay. So they decide to fight a duel, believing that the difference between them is, by long odds, the most serious difference that can separate men. The rest of the book is devoted to a description of that duel. As a matter of fact, it never comes to pass, for every time the contestants cross swords the police or other catchpoles rush in, and they must take to their heels. They are chased over half of England, and the yellow journals burst with the story. They become the most famous duellists in the world—but they never fight.

In the end they are snared by the gendarmes and clapped into a lunatic asylum. This gives Mr. Chesterton a chance to deliver a long and sage discourse upon the horrors of English law. After the smoke of his rhetoric clears away, we find the asylum burning down and Turnbull and Maclan escaping. At last their chance to fight it out has come. But now they discover, as the reader has discovered some time before, that they are stuck fast together by sentimental ties. Partners in adversity, they have learned to love each other as brothers. Going further, each has begun to see some reason in the other’s creed. Turnbull has lost his old hatred of idealism and Maclan has lost his old hatred of the infidel. At the end we see them on their knees together, each with his arm around the waist of a girl. No doubt someone once told Mr. Chesterton that a love element was necessary in every novel.

 

From such fantasies and symbolisms we descend to “The Fighter,” by Albert Payson Terhune (Lovell, $1.50), a story with no other purpose save that of giving the reader a pleasant hour or two, and separating him, via the department store, from his $1.08. Such stories fall under the heading of anesthetics. That is to say, they serve to deaden the little pains of life—to make a gloomy Sunday afternoon less gloomy, a long journey shorter, a dull evening less dull, imprisonment less tedious. When they are well done they deserve all praise, and so I give all praise to “The Fighter.” It is a first rate tale of its kind, with a blustering hero who fights his way up from slavery to millions, outraging the English language and the first families, doing kindness by stealth, making love like a prizefighter, tearing his enemies to pieces. There is plenty of wit in the book; the sayings of the heroic brute are full of rich metaphor and shrewd philosophy. I recommend it to all who would laugh a few score hearty and innocent laughs.

Incidentally, Mr. Terhune meets the current fashion by introducing a touch of psychotherapy at the end. Psychotherapy permeates the American atmosphere just now, bringing a savor as of violets to the nose, and so we must have it in our novels. In “The Fighter” the hero is a mere beginner in the art, for he gets no further than raising the heroine from the dead. She has been fatally hurt in a railroad wreck, and he arrives a few moments after her death. Sinking down by her side, he gazes into her still open eyes and cries: “Dey! Come back!” The orthodox doctors, enslaved by their worship of chemicals and cutlery, laugh at him, but he keeps on, and at the end of two or three hours Dey is sitting up. The hero is so exhausted by his effort that he sleeps for twenty hours straightaway, after which, it is to be presumed, he marries the girl.

Next comes an example of that new and most horrible type of fiction, the novelized drama. This time it is “Mary Jane’s Pa,” a version by Norman Way of Edith Ellis’s play of the same name (Fly, $1.50). Mr. Way, it must be admitted, has done his ghastly work with some show of skill, but that work is decidedly not worthwhile. What excuse is there for turning a third rate drama into a fourth rate novel? Those plays which are worth preserving should be printed as they were written; those which serve merely to keep one awake after dinner should be burned at the season’s end.

If I make no mistake, the device of making a bad novel of a bad play was invented by a New York yellow journalist, who sought thus to enliven his “home page” at small expense. Since then scores of farces and melodramas have been fitted with descriptive padding and published between covers. There are literary hacks who devote all their energies to the trade. Even “The Merry Widow” has been turned into a novel! If there is any excuse for the issue of such balderdash, I shall be very glad to hear it. Meanwhile, I cling to the doctrine that it is an offense to the civilized nostril; that it is worse than the old vice, now happily in abeyance, of dramatizing best sellers; that the dramatist who for a few dollars permits his work to be stuffed with parts of speech by a space writer is a dramatist who insults and degrades his profession.

But enough! We come to more novels. One of them is Justin Huntly McCarthy’s “The God of Love” (Harper, $1.50), a safe and sane romance of the historical species, with Dante dei Alighieri as its fair young hero and Beatrice Folco of the Portinari as its heroine. The teller of the tale is supposed to be one Lappo Lappi, alias Lappinaccio, alias Lappentarius, a squire of dames turned monk. It is a sketchy and somewhat slow moving story, but Lappo is made to tell it well, with abundant humor and plenteous sage remark and pictures of medieval Florence that you must go to Cellini to find equaled. The Dante that we see is jejune and sentimental—a maker of sonnets, a sigher of sighs, a student of the sword as well as of Virgil. Only now and then does the shadow of the stupendous Divine Comedy cast itself across the scene.

“Other People’s Houses,” by E. B. Dewing (Macmillan, $1.50), is a first novel by a frank admirer of Henry James. On the surface it thus appears as a mere imitation, but I rather think that it is more than that. It shows, indeed, in more than one place genuine insight and indubitable individuality. This Miss Dewing, in a word, seems to have something to say, and if at present her utterance is somewhat muddled, we may safely blame it upon her unperfected technique. The very fact that she admires Mr. James sets her apart from the average young novelists of our fair republic, for most of them, judging by their books, seem to give their allegiance to Old Cap Collier and Sylvanus Cobb.

“The Canvas Door,” by Mary Farley Sanborn (Dodge, $1.50), is a rather elaborate fantasy, with a strong flavor of that supernaturalism which seems to inflame just now all college professors, soulful young preachers, literary ladies and other persons of defective education. The fable deals with an old-fashioned beauty who steps out of a family portrait, reunites a warring couple, permits a young fellow to fall in love with her—and then steps back again. It is all told with considerable delicacy and charm. Everyone concerned is benefited by the ancient charmer’s embodiment, as Professor Lodge would say, even including the boy who learns to love her; for she leaves behind a series of beautiful memories, and a beautiful memory is one of the things that lift existence above a mere scramble for bread.

The excellent new English translation of the works of Friedrich Nietzsche, to which I referred at length some time ago, has been augmented lately by four volumes. In a few months five more will be issued, and in the fall the series will be completed, making eighteen volumes in all. Of the four now in hand, one contains a new version of “Also Sprach Zarathustra,” by Thomas Common, with an introduction by Frau Forster Nietzsche, the philosopher’s sister (Foulis, 6s.) ; the second gives us the first half of “Human All-too-Human,” a book which has hitherto appeared in English only in a mutilated and disgusting form (Foulis, 6s.); the third contains the essay on “The Future of Education” and several other early speculations (Foulis, 6s. 6d.) ; while the fourth, published under the name of “The Will to Power,” is made up of notes and fragments found among Nietzsche’s papers after his death (Foulis, 6s.). This last volume contains much material that now appears in English for the first time.

In the late eighties Nietzsche began making plans for a large work in four volumes. “The Will to Power” was the name he chose for it, and in it he proposed to set forth his philosophy in detail and to answer the critics who had fallen afoul of his earlier books. He made copious notes for the whole work, but the only part of it ever completed was the astonishing tract called “The Antichrist,” which was to have opened the first volume. This he wrote between September 3 and September 30, 1888. The manuscript was then laid aside and he busied himself with more notes, but illness overtook him before he got very far, and in 1890 he lost his mind. He died in 1900. Five years before that, the publication of a large edition of his works was begun in Germany, and “The Antichrist” was included, but the notes for “The Will to Power” did not see the light until some time later.

These fragments are printed just as Nietzsche left them, without any attempt at revision or amplification. Some of them are merely detached phrases, but others show marks of the philosopher’s own sandpaper and varnish. Taken together, they are of extraordinary interest, for they show plainly the ultimate drift of Nietzsche’s ideas and give the lie direct to many of his foes, in and out of the pulpit. It is often maintained, for example, that he advocated the merciless stamping out of the unfit, without regard to notions of humanity, but he here proves the inaccuracy of all such allegations. His war was waged, it appears plainly, not upon the weak and inefficient themselves, but upon that pious philosophy which makes weakness a virtue and exalts the weak to kingship over the strong.

Nietzsche knew very well that Christianity was a valuable thing to the helpless and downtrodden man. He called it the greatest of narcotics, the one thoroughly effective antidote to the bitter facts of life. He saw that it kept the weakling from despising himself; that it gave him hope, peace and self-respect; that it robbed ill fortune of its victory and misery of its sting. But he clung to the last to the doctrine that such anodynes and antidotes were not for the strong. The efficient man, he stoutly maintained, needed no religion. He was sufficient unto himself. He made his own laws and grabbed his own rewards. It was dangerous for him to be humble, for with humility came weakness.

Nietzsche believed that Christianity, or something like it, would survive so long as there were weak and helpless men in the world, and he believed that such men would be born forever. He even advocated artificial schemes for increasing their number, for he saw their vast utility as slaves to the strong. But he held that it was ridiculous to call the inefficient and poor in spirit the flower of the race, and extremely dangerous to erect their incapacity into an ideal. For asceticism and voluptuousness he had the same boundless contempt, for both, he argued, worked against strength and progress. He was the philosopher of good health, of the alert brain and the clean mind, as well as of the hard fist. He believed that the man most worthy of honor was that man who could do his day’s work in the heat of the sun without asking charity or praying to the gods to help him—that man who left the world in some sense and some measure better than he had found it. His “good” meant, not “holy” or “meek,” but “able.” His one god was efficiency.

E. Krehbiel’s latest volume, “A Book of Operas” (Macmillan, $1.75), is full of the curious lore which one always encounters in that learned gentleman’s compositions. Mr. Krehbiel, out of the recesses of his mind, could produce a musical encyclopedia a dozen times as fat as that of Sir George Grove. He knows the key, opus number and orthodox tempo of every composition ever written; he knows the cast, scale of admission and net receipts of every operatic performance ever given in New York; he knows the secret history of every prima donna, the drinking habits of every conductor, the assets and liabilities of every impresario, the fallacies and prejudices of every critic, the inner significance of every unresolved dissonance in the civilized world. And with all that cargo of erudition, he manages to write entertainingly, gracefully, even lightly. His daily contribution is the saving grace of the New York Tribune. He is our American Schumann, our Berlioz, our musical Supreme Court.

“A Book of Operas” does not follow the usual plan of such books. That is to say, it does not presume to cover all the more popular operas, giving short accounts of the text and music of each. Instead, it deals with but seventeen works, but to each of these a long chapter is allotted, rich in shrewd comment and apposite anecdote. We have here not only an analysis of each opera, but also a history of its adventures on the stage, of the traditions and conventions which govern its performance today, of the singers who have helped to give it fame. Mr. Krehbiel’s store of knowledge, of course, is not confined to the seventeen operas here discussed. Therefore it is not vain, perhaps, to venture the hope that the present volume will be followed by others of the same agreeable type.

A new book may justify its existence upon one of two grounds: either it may present facts and thoughts that are new to the world and worth hearing, or it may present old facts and thoughts more attractively than they have ever been presented before. “Woman’s Work in Fiction,” by Clara H. Whitmore (Putnam, $1.50) meets neither of these tests. I am unable to find in it any contribution of fact that was not already accessible, nor any contribution of criticism that helps to an understanding of the fair authors discussed. It is accurate and it is workmanlike, but it gets us nowhere.

“From Figg to Johnson,” by Barratt O’Hara (Blossom, $1.00), is sterner stuff. Here we have the first complete history in any language of the ancient contest for the heavyweight championship of the world. Mr. O’Hara has exhausted a library of pamphlets and newspaper files; he has searched old records; he has delved into old scandals; he has done justice with the rigid impartiality of a lord chancellor. And there is no little picturesque vigor in his style. He makes us see the dead masters as they stood in the ring, surrounded by honest sports and dealing staggering punch and mortal wallop. He weeds out the spurious champions, exposing their shallow pretensions, and constructs an authentic dynasty of real ones, beginning with James Figg (1719-1734), and ending with Jack Johnson (1909-?). No less than fifty-one honorable names are upon that heroic roll.

Such a book was sorely needed, for the chronicles of pugilism, before Mr. O’Hara tackled them, were in chaos. Our university scholars, going up for their doctorates, disdained the task of reducing that wilderness of material to order. It was, at one stroke, beneath their dignity and beyond their capacity. So it fell at last to Mr. O’Hara, a man fitted for it by Divine Providence—a man with a sincere respect for the oldest and noblest of sports, a thorough training in its technique and terminology and the pen of a ready writer. The result, as I have said, is an entertaining and excellent book, of human interest all compact.

Something of the same merit is to be found in “The History of the Great American Fortunes,” by Gustavus Myers (Kerr, $1.50). This is the first volume of a three-volume work planned to show how millions have been garnered in our fair land. The present volume deals with the great fortunes of Colonial days, which arose chiefly out of maritime enterprise and speculation in land, and the great land fortunes of the nineteenth century. Here we have the astonishing life stories of Stephen Girard, the elder Astor, Marshall Field, the Longworths, the early nabobs of New York. It is a moving chronicle of graft and chicanery, industry and daring on land and sea. Mr. Myers, it appears, is a Socialist, and in consequence he is too eager to interpret his facts by reference to the Marxian scriptures; but those facts in themselves are sufficiently interesting to make his book worth reading.

Three play books next invite us. The most important by far is an English translation by Francis J. Ziegler of Frank Wedekind’s remarkable German drama, “The Awakening of Spring” (Brown, $1.25). This is the second volume in a series of translated plays which began with August Strindberg’s “ Swanwhite.” In the present case Mr. Ziegler’s English leaves something to be desired, but the play is so striking that one scarcely notices occasional clumsiness. It is a study of the mental and physical phenomena of adolescence—a study not lacking in unblushing realism, but marked chiefly by a delicate vein of melancholy poetry. Wedekind is no mere literary anatomist, examining children under his glass as an entomologist examines beetles. On the contrary, he seems to enter more than once into the very souls of his characters, so that we see the tragedy of the drama through their childish eyes. An impressive and poignant play, unhappily impossible of performance before chemically pure Americans. In Germany, where it has been played in the independent theaters, it has left a profound impression, and in book form more than twenty-five editions have been demanded in three years.

“The Passion Play at Oberammergau” (Dufield, $1.50) is a translation by Montrose J. Moses of the German text now used by the play-acting Bavarian peasants. Mr. Moses traces the history of that text and incidentally discusses its origin. Both his translation and his commentary have uncommon merit. He is, indeed, fast winning a high place as a dramatic critic of learning and discernment.

“Napoleon,” by Algernon Boyesen (Unwin, 6s.) is a historical tragedy of two hundred and more pages, with an introduction of eight pages, in which last the author expounds his theory of dramatic art and pays his respects to the London Frohmans who refused to present his play. It may be said for Mr. Boyesen that his theory is a sound one, but it cannot be said of his drama that it grips the imagination. Its chief defect is a considerable discursiveness. Too often the characters waste time in ineffective talk.

Four more of the Page books about foreign parts are on the shelf in a glittering row. The volumes in this long series are designed for all travelers—for those who linger at the fireside as well as for those who actually fare afield. In the present quartet there are books upon the castles and chateaux of old Burgundy, the inns of old London, the pictures in the Belgian galleries and the marvels to be encountered in wildest Africa. To me the most interesting in the lot has been “Inns and Taverns of Old England,” by Henry C. Shelley (Page, $3.00), a charming mixture of history, gossip and pictures. Here we have all that is worth knowing about the Mermaid, the Cheshire Cheese, Lloyd’s, the Grecian, the White Hart and the rest of them—each a landmark in the history of the English race as important as most royal castles. There is some thing, too, about Vauxhall, Ranelagh and the other places of resort about the city. A book to dip into pleasantly and to stand upon your shelf for reference later on.

Esther Singleton’s “The Art of the Belgian Galleries” (Page, $2.00) is a more learned tome. In it there is some account of practically all the Flemish masters, from the Van Eycks down the long line. There are numerous reproductions of paintings. The art interest is also to the fore in “ Castles and Chateaux of Old Burgundy” ($3.00) by Francis Miltoun, an indefatigable writer of books about beautiful places. More than fifty full-page drawings by Blanche McManus, many in tint, and a number of maps and smaller illustrations add to its value. The fourth book is “In Wildest Africa,” by Peter MacQueen, F.R.G.S. ($3.00), an interesting and workmanlike account of journeys in the region that Mr. Roosevelt is traversing. A good part of it is devoted to Uganda, wherein the crafty British are laying the foundations of an empire that may one day make Europe sit up. A map, some excellent photographs by Peter Dutkewich and an extensive bibliography help to hold the reader.

Now comes bad poetry in a copious stream. “Waters from an Ozark Spring,” by Howard L. Terry (Badger, $1 .00), is a little book of truly execrable verse. “Elizabeth of Boonesborough,” by Pattie French Witherspoon (Badger, $1.50), is almost as bad, and “Verses,” by Wilson Jefferson (Badger, $1.00), is even worse. The critic must give up the ghost in the presence of such literary lobscouse. I can only pity the poor printers who were forced by the pressure of economic necessity to set it up. In “The Silver Lining,” by Nelson Glazier Morton (Badger, $1.00), the badness is measurably less irritating, but even here I am unable to find a single stanza worth printing. In “Changing Voices,” by R. D. Brodie (Badger, $1.00), there are one or two lines that almost reach the level of fair newspaper verse, and in “The Haunted House,” by Henry Percival Spencer (Badger, $1.00), there are half a dozen; but in all six books there is not material enough for one real poem.

In order to spread some balm upon the wounds of these bards, let me confess at once, and before they have time to make the customary charge, that I myself used to be a poet, and that I failed at the trade. I thus qualify as an orthodox critic, for I am a failure barking at the heels of unrecognized genius. But I wish it to be distinctly understood that, even when working for hire, I never wrote verses as bad as those I have just been trying to read. No; there are limits to self-abasement, and I make no such confession. If anyone arises to argue that I should, I shall be tempted to print some of my strophes. Let that serve as a threat and a warning.

 

The Autobiography of a Neurasthene

by Margaret A. Cleves, M.D. (Badger, $1.50)

The dull history of a female physician with a “sprained” brain. I don’t know what a “sprained” brain may be, but in its outward manifestations it seems to bear a quite startling likeness to a bad liver.

 

The Pleasure of Reading —

by Temple Scott. (Kennerley, $1.50)

A book of harmless platitudes, with elementary excursions into criticism. The author presents a list of books to read which includes Milton, Wordsworth and many other bores, and leaves out Rabelais, Schiller, Mark Twain, Conrad and “Barry Lyndon,” not to mention Congreve, Sheridan and Moliere.

 

Industrial Problems —

by N. A. Richardson. (Kerr, $1.00)

Dissertations upon the sorrows of the world, from the Socialist point of view

 

The Isle of Dead Ships —

by Crittenden Marriott. (Lippincott, $1.50)

The Sargasso Sea, last port of drifting derelicts, a race of lost sailors ruled by a king, an invading naval officer and a pretty girl — here we have the makings of a novel and effective thriller.

 

Irish Life and Humor —

by William Harvey. (Mackay, $1.50)

An exhaustive encyclopedia of Irish bulls, with colored pictures and an index. Useful for vaudevillains, Chautauqua stars and clergymen.

 

A Marriage a la Hell —

by The Woman Concerned. (Broadway Pub. Co., $1.00)

The horrible adventures of a woman who marries a Sunday school superintendent. Something new in the literature of human suffering.

 

In Ambush —

by Marie Van Vorst. (Lippincott, $1.50)

A first class thriller, with a villain who rises to the role of hero. Alaska, Egypt, Kentucky and other waste places supply the scenery.

 

Beechy —

by Bettina von Hutten. (Stakes, $1.50)

Here we have a great opera singer for a heroine—not a creature of moods and horrors, like Evelyn Innes, but a sweet girl of the sort Baroness von Hutten delights to draw. All the same, Beechy is not without her woes, her hardships and her bitter battles. A story of the “Pam” variety, and certain to delight the author’s multitude of admirers.

 

The Countersign—

by Claude P. Jones. (Badger, $1.50)

A belated imitation of Rider Haggard, with Tibet as the scene.

 

Nerves and Common Sense—

by Annie Payson Call. (Little-Brown, $1.25)

Chiefly editorials from the Ladies’ Home Journal. Earnest, honest and obvious.

 

Psychotherapeutics—

by Morton Prince, M.D. and others. (Badger, $1.50)

A symposium by experts upon the medical use of hypnotic suggestion.

 

The Diverting Adventures of Maurin—

by Jean Aicard. (Lane, $1.50)

A Rabelaisian romance of modern Provence, with a touch of poetry. If you love Tartarin of Tarascon, Maurin and his adventures will delight you.

 

Sparrows —

by Horace W. C. Newte. (Kennerley, $1.50)

The dull story of a working girl’s moral hazards in London town, with sundry observations upon political economy, obstetrics and the white slave trade. Such a story may show insight, feeling and the artistic sense, as “Sister Carrie” abundantly proves, but in the present case there is only a sort of ponderous sentimentality.

 

The Red Saint—

by Warwick Deeping. (Cassell, $1.50)

A historical romance of the orthodox sort, with the scenes laid in medieval England. The heroine has sense as well as beauty, and there are some vivid word pictures of fighting.

 

Eugenius, the Star Child —

by M. Y. T. H. Myth. (Broadway Pub. Co., 75c.)

Piffle.

 

An Eastern Lion in the West—

by M. Y. T. H. Myth. (Broadway Pub. Co., 75c.)

Also.

(Source: Hathitrust.org, https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=njp.32101076426160;view=1up;seq=526)