The Novels That Bloom in the Spring, Tra-La!

H.L. Mencken

The Smart Set/April, 1909

It is highly improbable that any of the novels of the present spring will go thundering down the dim corridors of time as immortal masterpieces, but, all the same, there are several in the first crop that will yield you a very fair profit upon the toil of reading them. When I say several I mean three, and when I say three I mean “Septimus,” “Tono-Bungay” and “The Eternal Boy.” The first is by W. J. Locke, an Englishman; the second is by H. G. Wells, a good European, and the third is by Owen Johnson, an American. If you have time, read all three of them—read them, chuckle over them and remember me in your prayers for having recommended them. They are from the pens of men who have something to say and know how to say it; they are full of humor, fancy, insight and imagination: they are arresting, workmanlike, artistic, different. If, unluckily for you, you are sorely indigent in leisure and must sacrifice one of the three, let that one be “Septimus.” And if—ah, woe!—you must sacrifice two, let the other be “The Eternal Boy.” But “Tono-Bungay” you must not miss. It is a story of a rare and delectable sort—a story with a beginning, a middle and an end, and a philosophy underneath. Beside the common run of best sellers it looms up like a Matterhorn.

“Tono-Bungay” (Duffield, $1.50) tells of one Ponderevo, a patent medicine king, and we see him go up the ladder and then come sliding down. At the start he is a small fry druggist in a little English country town—a druggist whose business barely gets him a living, but whose dreams are of gigantic wealth and kingly power. He invents hair oils, massage machines, headache powders, bust developers and shaving soaps—and then, in the end, after drawing many blanks, he invents Tono-Bungay. Ostensibly a sort of universal panacea for all human ills, this Tono-Bungay is really not a medicine at all, but a system of advertising. Into each bottle goes a fraction of a grain of strychnine and half a pint of water—a combination whose effect upon the human viscera, if it has any effect whatever, is almost certain to be baleful. But into his advertisements old Ponderevo puts something genuine, potent, rare and electrical, and that something is genius. So Tono-Bungay becomes a colossal success, and as it grows and grows Ponderevo’s dreams grow with it. The acknowledged monarch of the wholesale poisoning trade, he yearns for new worlds to conquer. He gobbles the soap industry, the coal scuttle industry, the flatiron industry and a hundred other industries. He aspires to control the production of all the necessaries of life, and the spellbound British public, enchanted by his magnificence, pours its savings into his securities. But that sort of thing, of course, can’t go on forever. There must come inevitably a day of doubt, followed by a day of worse doubt, and . . . Well, the expected happens, and the mills of the gods grind Ponderevo. One evening he escapes from England in an airship, to find himself, next day, in a remote Spanish hamlet. And there, after a while, he dies miserably. bankrupt and a fugitive from justice. It is the finish of Tono-Bungay. So much for the actual story. It is a story full of incident and action, and it is told with constant resourcefulness and skill. There are pages that show the insight of George Moore, and other pages that show the comic sense of Kipling. But more important than the story itself is the criticism of British civilization that Mr. Wells formulates in telling it. Here we have the estimates and objections of a man who has thought things out for himself, and whose conclusions, however much you may dissent from them, must at least convince you of their honesty and ingenuity. In a word, the principal character in this book is not Ponderevo, nor even that marvelous nephew of his who tells the story, but John Bull himself. We are made privy to John’s secret meditations; we come to understand his prejudices, follies and superstitions. He ceases to be a mere Merry Andrew of the cartoonists, and becomes, at a stroke, almost as human as Ponderevo himself. And so “Tono-Bungay” is not a common romance for the hammock and the parlor car, but a Book.

“Septimus” (Lane, $1.50) is a tale of far thinner blood, but Mr. Locke’s technique is so marvelous that it becomes almost as interesting. I wonder what this entertaining Englishman would make of a story as full of truth and human passion as that of “Anna Karenina”—or that of “Sapho”! And what would he make of a Becky Sharp, an Etienne Lantier or a Jean Valjean? As it is, Mr. Locke seems to avoid all such poignant plots and personages. He is content to skim the surface—to look upon life as an engrossing but incredible game, in which the straight flushes outnumber the melancholy two-spots. He has Barrie’s fancy without Barrie’s shrewd philosophy, and Gilbert’s extravagant humor without Gilbert’s weakness for a moral at the final curtain. It is a whimsical world that Mr. Locke inhabits, and the folks that he meets there are entirely impossible. But how delightful the one and how charming the other! As in “Tono-Bungay,” there is a patent medicine man in “Septimus,” but the two have nothing whatever in common. Ponderevo is not only a magnificent rascal, but also a great actor, and until the end we are unable to decide whether he believes in Tono-Bungay himself or not. This Lockean nostrum seller is less complex and less veritable. He is his own most enthusiastic follower and victim, and more than once he leaves the real world altogether and moves about for a while in the realm of comic opera. Septimus himself is frankly from fairyland. He is a gnome in a frock coat—a Liberal elf with a patriotic British respect for brandy and soda, the high silk hat and the Church of England. A true humanitarian and eager for the affection of his fellow creatures, he devotes his leisure to the design of large caliber ordnance. In love with one woman, and yearning for a chance to let her know it, he suddenly marries another—because that other stands in greater need of a husband. He is a bundle of impossibilities, of genial absurdities, of lovable extravagances. If you live a thousand years you will never meet him, but as you read about him in Mr. Locke’s delightful book you will come to regard him as an old and very dear friend.

“The Eternal Boy” (Dodd-Mead, $1.50) is the best book about boys that I have ever read, saving only “Huckleberry Finn.” Here is a writer who knows the young male of the human species as thoroughly as a Maryland blackamoor knows the roosting customs of the domestic fowl—knows him from his frowsy head to his stubbed toe, from his felonious mind to his insatiable stomach, from his loose incisor to the scab on his shin. Here we have a whole gallery —a principality, a cosmos—of boys, and every last one of them is alive, human and irresistible. Mr. Johnson’s youngsters are young gentlemen pursuing their studies at Lawrenceville Academy, but they really belong to all boydom. One begins by laughing at them and ends by laughing with them. They are universal types. Their torts and misdemeanors are the torts and misdemeanors of all boys at all times and everywhere. They go straight to your heart, and you cherish them there and go back with them, for a sentimental hour or so, to the glad days when you were a boy yourself—when you were one of these boys. You will never quite forget the Prodigious Hickey, and neither will you forget Doc Macnooder, the Human Catapult, Hungry Smeed and the Triumphant Egghead. They are old friends come back to give you all the news of boy land. The book is written, not for boys, but for men who were boys the other day. It has an abounding humor that “ Tom Brown at Rugby” lacks, and it has insight that “Stalky & Co.” never shows, even in traces. As I have said, I know of but one book in the English language that meets it upon its own ground and dims its charm, and that book is “Huckleberry Finn.” But this comparison is unjust, for merely human heroes cannot hope to rival the gods.

And now let us jump from Paradise to Gehenna, which is to say, from the three excellent books we have been discussing to the Rev. Thomas Dixon’s “Comrades” (Doubleday-Page, $1.50). The first few chapters of this intolerably amateurish and stupid quasi-novel well-nigh staggered me, and it was only by tremendous effort that I got through them at all. After that, I must confess, the task became less onerous, and toward the end the very badness of the book began to exercise a nefarious fascination. I was exploring new worlds of banality, of vapidity, of melodrama, of tortured wit. I felt the thrill of the astronomer with his eye glued upon some new and inconceivable star—of the pathologist face to face with some novel and horrible coccus. So I now look back upon my two hours with “Comrades,” not with a shudder, but with a glow. It will lie embalmed in my memory as a composition unearthly and unique—as a novel without a single redeeming merit. It shows every weakness, fault, misdemeanor known to prose fiction, from incredible characterization to careless proofreading, and from preposterous dialogue to trashy illustrations. No, I am not going to tell you the plot. Buy the book and read it yourself. The way to happiness lies through suffering.

The next worst book on my shelf is “The Red Mouse,” by William Hamilton Osborne (Dodd-Mead, $1.50). Here we have the tale of a district attorney who, on being tempted by a bribe of $100,000, demands eight times as much —and gets it. For this princely honorarium he promises to achieve the liberation of a gentleman unjustly accused of homicide. He delivers the goods—and then returns the money! On its face, you will observe, this story is not entirely absurd, and in the hands of a first class—or even twentieth or two hundredth class—romancer it might conceivably kill time between trains very acceptably. But as Mr. Osborne has written it, it reeks of the clumsy and impossible amateur. The characters are wooden dummies and they speak in story book style throughout. Not once do they appeal to you as human beings; not once do you find yourself sorry for them in their sorrows or glad with them in their joys. The plot is an amplified anecdote. The whole story might be better told in a thousand words. Altogether, it’s a sorry performance. A book not far from the opposite pole is “The Kiss of Helen,” by Charles Marriott (Lane, $1.50). It is an interesting story well told, and it reveals a decidedly individual talent—a talent, one feels, that has yet to find complete utterance. Its appeal, perhaps, is not very wide, and so it cannot be bracketed with the three books I have discussed at the beginning of this article, but it certainly belongs to the truly significant and original fiction of the spring. Mr. Marriott seems to be writing, not because the manufacture of novels is a gentlemanly and profitable diversion, but because he has something to say. The story is a study of mental states rather than of muscular functioning, and in consequence it ill bears summarizing. The idea at the bottom of it—and, strangely enough, a good novel commonly has an idea at the bottom of it—is a sort of denial of the ancient Anglo-Saxon assumption that love and the impulse to marry are synchronous and identical. If we deny this assumption we destroy the essential premise in nine-tenths of all English and American works of the imagination. Nevertheless, Mr. Marriott denies it, and in its place he puts the counter notion that, among human beings of a certain complexity, marriage may appear, not as the inevitable and delectable crown and climax of love, but as its skeleton-at-the-feast and Blue Monday. The thought is not new, no doubt, but never has it been discussed with more insight and understanding. An interesting book, and for all its faults of technique, one well worth reading.

“The Explorer,” by W. Somerset Maugham (Baker-Taylor, $1.50), has a heroine whose woes keep her in tears from cover to cover. Her father begins things by losing their ancestral home in the stock market. Then he is arrested for fraud, tried, convicted and jailed. Then he gets out and proceeds to die, lingeringly and horribly, at the poor girl’s expense. But wait! The worst is yet to come! The girl has a lover —the calm, brave, wealthy Explorer pictured on page 170. He takes her young brother out to Africa to make a man of him, but the brother soon goes wrong, and the Explorer, who is judge and hangman out there, condemns him to lead a forlorn hope against a war party of savages. He never comes back. Robbed thus of father and brother, the poor girl lives only for her exploratory lover. And even he is now lost to her, for his enemies, on his return, say that he deliberately contrived the murder of his prospective brother-in-law. He is too austere and dignified to call them liars and so the heroine suffers agonies. Can she marry the murderer of her brother? No! But can she help loving him? Again, no! Tortured unto death, she receives word that her Explorer is going back to Africa to face almost certain assassination. And then, casting maiden modesty to the winds, she tackles him with her tears, and he—well, it would not be quite accurate to say that he melts, for it is inconceivable that such an arctic and magnificent hero should ever melt, but he does grow somewhat humane, if not human. That is to say, he gives her his word that her brother deserved to die; and furthermore, he gives her his word that he will not submit tamely to assassination. The chances are, he says, that he will come back—at the end of three years or so . . . The poor girl, unaccustomed to such avalanches of joy, almost collapses. As will be observed, Mr. Maugham’s story is scarcely to be taken seriously as a chronicle of human events, but all the same, it has a certain interest and vivacity. A humorous sub-plot gives him an opportunity to write the witty dialogue for which he is famous. Such dialogue is never spoken by human beings, but it makes passable reading, none the less.

In “The Magician,” also by Mr. Maugham (Duffield, $1.50), there are staggering thrills. The book, indeed, is frankly designed to scare you to death, and it almost accomplishes its object. Its villain-hero is an Englishman, who masters the magic of the ancients, and erects a laboratory for the artificial manufacture of girls and boys. Incidentally, he carries off a beautiful heroine—who really loves another fellow, poor maid!—and introduces her to such unspeakable horrors that she soon expires. “The Magician,” I am sorry to say, has little more literary grace than a college yell, but such as it is, it will certainly keep you awake.

Emerson Hough’s “54-40 or Fight” (Bobbs-Merrill, $1.50) is somewhat elaborately dedicated to Mr. Roosevelt, and I have no doubt that its mixture of patriotism and romance will vastly delight that gentleman. More critical readers, however, will probably reach the lamentable conclusion that Mr. Hough’s story is a poor one, and that he tells it badly. One of the chief figures is John Calhoun, and the intrigue concerns itself with the acquisition of Texas and the Northwest Territory. Both England and the United States want these dominions, and the battle for them is being waged at Washington. England seems to be winning, when suddenly one of her agents—a mysterious Baroness von Ritz—falls in love with Calhoun’s fair young secretary. To serve him, she becomes the mistress of the British Ambassador, who so far yields to her charms that he signs a waiver of the British claims. This document she hands to the man she loves—and then blesses his union with a beautiful young American. Toward the end she tells the story of her life. Here and there, particularly in his descriptions of the march of empire westward, Mr. Hough writes with skill and good sense, but in his sentimental passages he grows conventional and maudlin. His characters lack rotundity, reality, humanity. Somehow, indeed, they smell of the storehouse, and engender the idea that the author in his day has read many bad novels—read them and, what is worse, enjoyed them.

“The Fashionable Adventures of Joshua Craig,” by David Graham Phillips (Appleton, $1.50), is a good story spoiled in the telling. The pushing, egomaniac and ruthless hero who comes out of the West and forces both the President of the United States and the social Czarina of Washington to eat from his hand, and the weak, fashionable heroine who yields to him—these are interesting and novel person ages, and their story is worth hearing. But Mr. Phillips mixes it with so much of his own rubbishy philosophy that it often lumbers. Someday, let us hope, he will outgrow this philosophy and cease to dwell upon the Crimes of the Affluent. When he does he will begin to write very good novels.

“The Climber,” by E. F. Benson (Doubleday-Page, $1.50), is a story of the “Dodo” school. That is to say, the scenes are laid in exceedingly fashionable circles, and the final note is one of despair. In striking this note Mr. Benson borrows a device from the masters of music. You remember, I suppose, that harrowing crash at the end of “Madame Butterfly”—that shrill triad on the sixth of B minor, with its assertion of the unbearable and irremediable? Well, Mr. Benson de vises a verbal sixth of B minor for the end of his last chapter: “These were they; moth-eaten now, moldy.” These were they! Don’t you feel the harshness, the cruelty, the brutality of it? Don’t you hear the whole of that ghastly sentence ringing in your ears? Certainly such bold borrowings from the chamber of horrors of a sister art show ingenuity—and there is plenty more of it in “The Climber.” The story is not pleasant, and it is difficult to summon up sympathy for any of the principal characters, but, all the same, it is well planned and, in more than one place, well written.

“The Three Brothers,” by Eden Phillpotts (Mactnillan, $1.50), is the workmanlike novel of an accomplished workman, but I cannot imagine an American growing interested in it. It deals with certain exceedingly elemental folks of Mr. Phillpotts’s beloved Dartmoor, and at times one can scarcely see the story for the local color. It is, I have no doubt, a keen and accurate study of Dartmoor psychology, but Dartmoor psychology, like Lithuanian philology, is a subject in which few of us have a very feverish interest. The characters approach the universal types but rarely, and when they do they are not usually likable. To connoisseurs of workmanship, of course, Mr. Phillpotts is never without his moments.

“Maurice Guest,” by H: H. Richardson (Duffield, $1.50), is a story of student life in Leipsig, and its hero is a young Englishman who mixes the investigation of dissonances and the practice of scales with the dangerous art of wooing. In the end he goes into a public park at sunrise, places a revolver to his bare chest and shoots himself through the lungs—a vulgar and even indecent performance. It is a somber and somewhat dull story, with occasional flashes of good writing. Much of its dullness, no doubt, is due to its intolerable length. In all, there are 562 pages of small type—enough matter for a three volume novel or a Sunday newspaper. In “Dreaming River,” by Barr Moses (Stokes, $1.50), there are but two characters of consequence. One of them is a rugged poet (hero) and the other is his fair young third cousin (heroine) . The hero makes love to the heroine by forcing her to listen to his unpublished strophes. A good part of the book, in fact, is made up of quotations from his unpublished works. One of them consists of seventeen stanzas of seventeen lines each, and covers eight pages of fine print! It is bad enough, certainly, to encounter such young epics upon every third or fourth page, but when the author sandwiches between them long critical discussions—chiefly favorable—of their meters, rhymes and images, the limit of human endurance is reached. Suppose all the poets of America were to adopt this sinister method of smuggling their rhapsodies into American homes! The thought is appalling!


by Harold Bindloss. (Stokes, $1.50)

Another of Mr. Bindloss’s vigorous tales of the Canadian frontier. There is good red blood in everything he writes, but it would seem advisable for him to turn out fewer books.


The Misadventures of Marjory —

by James B. Naylor. (Clark, $1.50)

A short and diverting comedy, written with considerable spirit and humor. The love story is safe and sane.


The Pulse of Life—

by Mrs. Belloc Lowndes. (Dodd-Mead, $1.50)

A rather interesting and well managed tale of international society in London. Traces of both “Dodo” and “The Prisoner of Zenda.”


Myrtle Baldwin —

by Charles Clark Munn. (Lotkrop, $1.50)

A maudlin story of a working girl’s struggles to preserve her chemical purity. Written like the worst of the old-time Sunday school books.


Satisfied at Last—

by Martin Sindell. (Reid, $1.50)

A dull and vapid Christian Science novel. Not the slightest trace of merit.


The Actress—

by Louise Closser Hale. (Harpers, $1.50)

A somewhat denaturized picture of stage life, with an engaging heroine and interesting episodes. Miss Hale knows how to write.


The Wild Widow —

by Gertie S. Wentworth-James. (Empire Book Co., $1.50)

A trivial and tiresome story, with cheap attempts at nastiness.


Destiny and Desire—

by Maryland Watson. (Casino Pub. Co., 75 cents)

Delirious dithyrambs, with a portrait of the fair bard.


Peace, Power and Plenty—

by Orison Swett Harden. (Crowell, $1)

A series of optimistic essays which can do no harm and may possibly save some poor fellow from despair. Incomparably more reasonable and efficient than theology.


The Devil’s Note Book—

by Oliver Bainbridge. (Cochrane, $1.50)

Satiric muckraking on a large scale, planned to prove that the world is going to the damnition bow-wows.


The Banking and Currency Problem—

by Victor Morawetz. (Harpers, $1)

A lucid discussion of financial problems, not by a theorizing college professor, but by a man with a thorough and practical knowledge of the subject and a gift for clear writing.


The Death of Lincoln —

by Clara E. Laughlin. (Doubleday-Page, $1.50)

The best book ever written about the greatest of American tragedies. A model of critical industry and fairness.


Justice and Liberty—

by G. Lowes Dickinson. (McClure, $1.50)

Acute and interesting dialogues upon the most important ethical and social problems of the day. Full of insight and originality.


No Refuge but in the Truth—

by Goldwin Smith. (Tyrrel, 50 cents)

A brief statement of Mr. Smith’s final philosophy. The conclusions of a learned and noble man.


The American Tropics—

by W. T. Corlett. (Burrows, $1.50)

Rather superficial observations in the lands and islands of the Spanish Main. Good illustrations.


Poems —

by Francis Rawlinslies. (Badger, $1)

Extremely unpoetical poetry.


Verses —

by Lusina and Jessie Mills. (Badger, $1)

Let us draw the veil of charity over these earnest but banal strophes.


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