The Smart Set/July, 1913
THIS article, I fear, will strike you as dull, dull stuff—I feel in my bones, indeed, that it is going to be so—but I hope and pray that it will be measurably less dull than the novels it principally deals with. What is more, there is faith behind my prayer, and so I proceed to the business of composition without further apologies or deprecations. In order to save your arm, a humane surgeon saws off your little finger, or even your thumb; in order to buttress you against smallpox, a wise physician gives you cowpox. The reviewer of books, if he would serve his customers well, must sometimes serve them as ruthlessly. In the present case, I bore you with 5,735 words of review, at a cost to you of less than two cents, in order to warn you away from some 1,200,000 words of cheerless, uninspired, machine-made fiction, which would cost you about $23.50 in the department stores. The 1,200,000 words of fiction I have swallowed myself, deadhead and willingly—a nobler act than the vaccinator’s, for he flees from the smallpox as precipitately as his patient. Let the fact be remembered when I get to hell at last, and there take fire from the assembled kidnappers and vice crusaders, the yeggmen and Sunday school superintendents. Let the heat be tempered to the worn reviewer.
So saying, I bring to your notice a dark maroon tome entitled “The Voice of the Heart,” by Margaret Blake (Dillingham), in which Chemical Purity and the Scarlet Sin go to the mat together, and the result is a loud, dusty tussle, a hot, sanguinary scrap. There is no doubt whatever that Betty Garside loves Richard Pryce—the fact is specifically admitted, indeed, so early as Chapter IV—but whenever she thinks of marriage, she trembles, as Mulvaney used to say, like an asp on a leaf. Men are such coarse creatures, such low, licentious brutes. To sit in the parlor and discuss the Zeitgeist never contents them: no sooner are the lights turned down than they want to begin hugging and kissing. And after marriage they proceed to even greater and grosser liberties, the character of which sweet Betty can only guess. She guesses accurately enough, however, to set her against them. Unless Richard will promise faithfully to forswear such Babylonish debaucheries, she will never wed him. She has been reading, one fancies, Chapter IX of “Science and Health,” by the polyandrous (and perhaps penitent) Mrs. Eddy. She is a race suicidist of the militant wing. She is determined to die a maid.
Naturally enough, Richard objects. In truth, he refuses positively to hear of any such arrangement, and they debate the matter for twenty or thirty pages. In the midst of the discussion, there enters a new lover—to wit, Stanley Earlcote, an enormously rich and rascally fellow. Search the books from end to end, and you will find no more hideous villain than Stanley. There is not “a vestige of color in either his cheeks or his lips, but the tip of his nose is faintly pink.” His small greenish-gray eyes have “no brilliancy, but are dull and heavy, like the eyes of a dead fish.” This Stanley determines to win Betty by disposing of Richard. Accordingly, he calls in the aid of Katarina della Florenzia, a lady with “scintillating, titillating, twinkling” orbs—and scarcely enough virtue to outfit a policeman. In the hands of this fair professor Richard is as a lump of clay. She lures him to her apartment, fascinates him with her “titillating” sparklers, plies him with “caviare and smoked salmon sandwiches and champagne”—and drags him down to infamy. Worse still, she sends him away with something worse than remorse to remember her by. In M. Brieux’s eloquent phrase, he becomes “damaged goods.” Marriage with Betty is now out of the question.
Re-enter the crafty Stanley Earlcote, with his pink nose, his fishy eyes and his great gift for scoundrelism. Having Richard in his power, he now turns to Betty and—but let us cut it short, and have done with this odoriferous nonsense. Richard has to go to the hospital, and Betty must find the money to pay the costs. Earlcote offers her five thousand dollars if she will marry him. She agrees. Five years later she and Richard meet again. He has been cured of his malaise and she has been cured of her chemical purity. So they boldly inform Earlcote that his day of reckoning has come, and after a feeble resistance he surrenders. The divorce obtained, they are married “at eight o’clock in the morning of April 30 … at the Little Church Around the Corner”—a gratuitous crime against that long-suffering tabernacle. As they leave the church, a messenger boy hands them a letter from Earlcote—a letter running to eleven hundred words and ending with the following beautiful thoughts:
I have not much longer to live. Mock me, if you will. I deride myself. But it is better to sweep the heart clean of hate than to nurture it, for hatred, as I have learned, hurts not him who is hated so much as him who hates. Per haps, after all, my motives in this singular affair are purely selfish. … I was ever a prince of egoists.
Is it possible to imagine any more witless, preposterous bosh—any more puerile, overladen nastiness? And yet such garbage is pouring from the presses day in and day out, and multitudes of the feeble-minded seem to read it and enjoy it. Much the same note is struck in “The White Shrine,” by Gerald Villiers-Stuart (McClurg), though here the uncleanness is far less assertive. Etherea Vaughan, author of pretty best-sellers, has been carrying on an affair with David Waldorfe for a long while before she discovers that he is married. When he tells her at last, it is as overture to the news that his wife is suing him for divorce, and that Etherea is named as co-respondent. But with the news he brings a way out. If Etherea will fork over ten thousand dollars, no doubt his wife will forget it. Alas, Etherea hasn’t the money! How to acquire it? The ingenious Waldorfe at once suggests a plan. If she will abandon sweet romance for a time, and give her publishers a novel of “daringly salacious qualities,” the money will come rolling in forthwith. He himself will even help her to write it. He has talents in that direction; he will put in the genuinely hot stuff; he will enchant the high school girls. … I leave the rest to your own inspection, but recommend that you do not inspect it. The thing is spun out to 336 pages of small print and is made up of one absurdity after another. Unlike “The Voice of the Heart,” it is written in reasonably coherent English, and even shows a few feeble attempts at epigram. But for all that unusual elegance, it remains very tedious rubbish, and in warning you away from it I rescue you from certain boredom.
Scarcely less stupid are most of the more virtuous books of the month—for example, “Parrot & Co.,” by Harold MacGrath (Bobbs-Merrill); “The Uphill Climb,” by B. M. Bower (Little Brown), and “The Creeping Tides,” by Kate Jordan (Little Brown). The MacGrath confection deals with the amours of Elsa Chetwood, “a society girl, very wealthy, but something of a snob.” Elsa is in love with Arthur Ellison, a rich and polished young New Yorker, but instead of marrying him and having done with it, she goes touring to the Far East. There, on an Irrawaddy steamer, she meets another fellow. At the start she is attracted to him by his strange resemblance to Arthur, but soon she sees that he is a vastly superior creature, and so she begins loving him on his own account. But he is under a cloud: he can’t go back to the States. She wonders what he has done; and being a young woman of initiative, proceeds to cross-examine him. Thus:
Have you ever done anything that would conscientiously forbid you to speak to a young unmarried woman?
No. I haven’t been that kind of a man. I could look into my mother’s eyes without any sense of shame, if that is what you mean.
Your mother is living?
Yes. But I haven’t seen her in ten years.
That is all that Elsa learns on page 58, but back on page 302 the whole truth comes out. Arthur and the fascinating stranger, it appears, are actually brothers. Arthur stole eight thousand dollars and Brother Hero took the blame. Hence his long exile. Hence his meeting with Elsa on the Irrawaddy. Hence this latest volume of Macgrathian balderdash. MacGrath has never done any thing worse. Very few other men, living or dead, have ever done anything so bad.
In Mr. Bower’s book we are introduced to Ford Campbell, a stage cowboy of bibulous habits. One day he goes to town, immerses himself in alcohol—and awakes next morning to find himself married! To a houri of the dance halls? To a low, vile creature? Not at all. The bride, according to the half-blind friends who assisted at the nuptials, was a young woman of very decent aspect. But now she has disappeared. Who was she? Where is she? Ford himself is long in the dark, but the battered novel reader begins to have a shrewd suspicion on page 69, when a beautiful young lady named Josephine Melby invades the scene and essays to rescue our hero from the Rum Demon. And on page 278 it all comes out. Josephine, it appears, mistook Ford for a gentleman named Frank Ford Cameron, who was doomed to lose a fortune unless he married her by a certain day. But now she ceases bothering about this Mr. Cameron and goes to light housekeeping with Mr. Campbell, who has been in love with her since page 73, and whom she has loved in turn since page 202.
The heroine of “The Creeping Tides” is the wife and dupe of a counterfeiter, and has but lately escaped from prison when the story opens. Her name is Mrs. Fanny King, alias Mrs. Barrett. When she buries herself in Greenwich Village, hoping thus to elude the relentless catchpolls of the law, the first person she meets is Lieut. John Cross, a wounded soldier. John has done great deeds in the Philippines, and the folk at Washington are all for making him a captain, but he will have none of their rewards and praises. Why? Because there is a canker eating at his heart. Because he stands in the shadow of an old disgrace. Because he was once cashiered from the British army for cowardice. (He was a Briton before he began to fight for Uncle Sam.) Well, well, well! A sorry kettle of fish! But in the end, of course, the fish change into marshmallows and wedding cake, and all is well. Fanny’s felonious husband dies; John gets a pardon for her from the President (who is very polite to him); the British War Office expunges the old charge of cowardice from the records, and one of the curates at Grace Church earns a bit of trinkgeld. “It’s just like a story,” says Someone-or-Other on page 354. Like a story, indeed—and like an extraordinarily clumsy, ridiculous and dull one.
Five novels so far, and all of them unmitigated bosh. Five more, and every one as boshy . They are “The Gay Rebellion,” by Robert W. Chambers (Appleton); “Mr. Hobby,” by Harold Kellock (Century Co.); “The Dream Girl,” by Ethel Gertrude Hart (Doubleday-Page); “The Suttee of Safa,” by Dulcie Deamer (Dillingham) ; and “The Land of the Spirit,” by Thomas Nelson Page (Scribner). Add three to the ten and make it a baker’s dozen: “The Fear of Living,” by Henry Bordeaux (Dutton); “Devota,” by Augusta Evans Wilson (Dillingham), and “Lore of Proserpine,” by Maurice Hewlett (Scribner). I open “The Gay Rebellion” at page 26 and encounter the following singularly witty dialogue:
“It startled me. How did I know what it might have been? It might have been a bear —”
“Or a cow.”
“You talk,” said Savre angrily, “like William Dean Howells! Haven’t you any romance in you?”
“Not what you call romance. Pass the flap jacks.”
Sayre passed them.
“My attention,” he said, “instantly became riveted upon the bushes. I strove to pierce them with a piercing glance. Suddenly—”
“Sure! ‘Suddenly’ always comes next.”
“Suddenly . . . the leaves were stealthily parted, and—”
“A naked savage in full war paint—”
“Naked nothing! A young girl in … a perfectly fitting gown stepped noiselessly out.”
“Out of what, you gink?”
“The bushes, dammit! … She looked at me; I gazed at her. Somehow — ”
“In plainer terms, she gave you the eye. What?”
“That’s a peculiarly coarse observation.”
“Then tell it in your own way.”
“I will. The sunlight fell softly upon the trees of the ancient wood —”
“Woodn’t that bark you!”
And so on and so on, for page after page. Can you imagine any more brilliant and bubbly stuff—“pierce” and “piercing” —“you gink!” —“she gave you the eye”— “Woodn’t that bark you!” No doubt Richard Brinsley Sheridan and Oscar Wilde, sitting in gehenna together, exchange such super-humorous badinage by the hour, with Dean Swift and Sydney Smith contributing occasional cracks, and ten thousand devils doubled up with mirth in the gallery. I commend the book to all persons who enjoy the repartee of gashouse comedians in small-time vaudeville, and are convulsed by the whimsicalities of Puck and Judge. Such masterpieces are rare. The last was Joe Miller’s Joke Book.
“Mr. Hobby” and “The Dream Girl” are sentimental tales which forcibly suggest jars full of pink and white stick candy, and so they need not detain us more than a moment. The former is remarkable for the fact that the hero is called Henry Dulworthy on page 27, calls himself Robert Dulworthy on page 46, and finally settles down as Henry on page 91. There may be some reason for these changes, but if there is I must leave you to find it for yourself, for all the while I read the book my mind wandered hopelessly—to girls I loved far back in the nineties, to long-forgotten journeys, crimes and suits of clothes, to the day I was seasick in the Windward Passage, to the tulip fields below Utrecht, to Huxley’s essays, to the German schoolmaster who used to pull my teeth, to Huck Finn’s visit to the circus, to the scarlet branches on my family tree, to Fenimore Cooper, Papa Haydn, Johann Most and Hannah More—to any and everything save the amour of Henry Robert-Henry Dulworthy and the beauteous Rose Allingham. On page 333, as Henry-Robert-Henry finishes its chronicle, Rose “rushes in and leans over” his chair, patting his cheek and “taking remarkable liberties “ with his hair, so that it is “with the greatest difficulty” that he can steady himself “to pen these last few lines.” Ah, blest reminder of lost Victorian romances! Ah, sweet, sweet echo of earlier, happier, softer days!
I pass over the saccharine love-making of “The Dream Girl” and the dime novel thrills of “The Suttee of Safa,” and proceed to the pifflish sentimentality of “The Land of the Spirit,” by Thomas Nelson Page. “Possibly the most notable one change in our national life in the last decades,” says Mr. Page in his preface, “is the deepening of its note.” For example, from the heroic idealism of John Brown to the dirty snouting and woman-hounding of the Vice Crusade. For example, from the man’s job of conquering the wilderness to solemn mountebankeries of the Bull Moose messiahs and the Men and Religion Forward Movement. Of the seven stories in the book, two are pious parables in the manner of Charles Rann Kennedy, and a third is a frank attempt to rewrite the story of the Nativity, as told in Luke II, 4-21, and Matthew II, 13-14. .Mr. Page must believe that his Revised Version is an improvement, else he would not print it. But very few readers, I venture to opine, will agree with him in this belief. The story of the Nativity, true enough, is not so well told in the New Testament as the story of the Passion. Matthew leaves out the shepherds and the manger, Luke leaves out the wise men, and John and Mark leave out everything. But these leavings out are not nearly so irritating as Mr. Page’s impertinent puttings in. All he has accomplished by his devout labor is to reduce one of the sublimely beautiful stories of the world to the bromidic level of a romance in the Ladies’ Home Journal. His offense against good literature and good taste is a serious one, and he lacks entirely the excuse of Renan and Strauss, for he brings neither scholarship nor imagination, nor any sense of poetry to the enterprise. If the whole New Testament were rewritten as he has here rewritten one chapter, it would be the dullest book since Hinds’s “Precedents of the House of Representatives.” And all the other stories in the volume are bad too. It is, indeed, a miserable performance for a man of Mr. Page’s reputation. To find its match for vacuity one must go to Henry Van Dyke’s “The Unknown Quantity.”
“The Fear of Living, “ by Henry Bordeaux, is introduced with a flourish of trumpets as something “new and daring.” In reality, it is a stupid moral tract in favor of patriotism, prolificacy, sentimental self-sacrifice and all other such virtues of the chandala. In its original French form, it appeared so long ago as 1902, and the “strenuous life” philosophy of Colonel Roosevelt, then much discussed in France, seems to have inspired it. But too often M. Bordeaux converts the healthy courage of the Roosevelt scheme into a sickly sort of altruism, indistinguishable from the sklav-moral denounced by Nietzsche. His heroine, Mme. Guibert, is a chronic martyr. First she allows her husband to throw away all his money upon a bankrupt brother; then she allows him to sacrifice his life to ingrates; then she sends two sons out to the pestiferous swamps of Saigon; then she sends a third to his death in Algiers; and finally she surrenders her last remaining child, a daughter, and goes into a gloomy provincial boarding house to end her days. Is all this a brave “acceptance” of life? I doubt it. To me it seems more like silly resignationism. Such suicidal sacrifices seldom do any good. Even in this present fable they do no good. As she passes from the scene, one can envy Mme. Guibert no more than one can envy Jennie Gerhardt—and so the moral of the tale falls flat. That it made a sensation in France I can well believe: the French are not used to such brummagem pieties in their serious fiction. But that it is a work of art, or even a work of sound sense, I must respectfully deny. On the contrary, it is merely a tedious Sunday school book, as far from reality as “Soldiers of Fortune” or “The Duchess,” and as smug and preposterous as Zola’s “Fecondite.”
What “Widecombe Fair,” by Eden Phillpotts (Little-Brown), is about I do not presume to tell you, for I have not read it and never shall. Phillpotts is one of the few novelists I cannot read, trying my angelic darndest, and every six months or so I have to make apologies for my infirmity. As a peace offering to his admirers, I quote the following from the sagacious Boston Evening Transcript: “Every page contributes a new idea to our understanding of human nature; every chapter is in itself the germ of a long story . . . . It is a bigger, and perhaps more massive thing than any of its predecessors.” So with “The Mating of Lydia,” by Mrs. Humphry Ward (Doubleday-Page), a respectable, well-appearing fiction of some five hundred pages, bound in Nile green. I note that the heroine’s name is Lydia Penfold, that the principal hero is Claude Faversham (possibly a brother to William), and that there is a heavy father called Edmund Melrose; but on attempting to read further I am deviled by vagrant and irrelevant thoughts. Therefore I hoist a signal of distress, and am rescued fraternally by the reviewer of the learned New York Times, who says that Lydia is “very girlish and human” and that “one is glad on taking leave of her to feel that her mating will probably be happy and successful.” And from the same colleague I learn that Faversham “does the absolutely proper thing according to tradition” (i. e., marries the girl?), and that the book, as a whole, “is rich in that atmosphere of culture and good breeding which is peculiar to Mrs. Ward.” Here, alas, I must raise a feeble voice in dissent. An atmosphere of “culture and good breeding” is not “peculiar to Mrs. Ward”—that is, if “peculiar” means “belonging particularly or exclusively to a person,” as the Standard Dictionary says. There is just as much of it, if not more, in the works of Gertrude Atherton and Richard Harding Davis.
“Lore of Proserpine,” by Maurice Hewlett, is called a “book of fiction” by the publishers, but Hewlett himself, in his preface, hints that it is chiefly autobiographical. In any case, it is an infantile collection of stories about fairies and oreads, written with all the deadly seriousness of a report by the Society for Psychical Research. Hewlett’s customary humor is missing and the customary charm of his style is missing: it is a stupid volume. Stupid, too, are most of the stories in “Faro Nell and Her Friends,” by Alfred Henry Lewis (Dillingham), not because they lack efforts at brightness, but because their brightness is too often obviously artificial. Of the picturesque, syncopated style of Mr. Lewis I am a hearty admirer, but it loses four-fifths of its incisiveness and plausibility when it comes out of the mouths of his characters. More stupid is “Devota,” by the late Mrs. Augusta Evans Wilson, a stilted romance in her characteristic manner. But the book is saved by an appendix of “biographical reminiscences” by T. C. DeLeon, an eminent critic of the Confederate States, who argues that Mrs. Evans was “the most remarkable woman of the century just passed.” Mr. DeLeon gives warning that he makes this statement, “not from impulse, not from personal friendship of near a lifetime’s duration, still less from any sectional prejudice veering toward her Southern birth, nurture and voluntary residence,” but because he “believes it absolutely true” and because it is “as clearly proved and provable as it is true.” Unluckily for posterity, he fails to give the proofs, but he makes up for the oversight by dropping many artless hints about his own literary feats and standing. He is the author, it appears, of “Rock and Rye” and of a burlesque on “Hamlet” which once ran for one hundred nights in New York. But away with such vanities! It is as a critic that the Hon. Mr. DeLeon must live and shine.
And now, to make an end of the novels, brief mention for five of finer metal—not masterpieces, nor even secure second raters, but things infinitely above the vapid stuff I have been leading you through. They are “The Right of the Strongest,” by Frances Nimmo Greene (Scribner), a sympathetic and painstaking picture of Alabama mountain folk; “American Nobility,” by Pierre de Coulevain (Dutton), an acute study of international marriage; “The Weaker Vessel,” by E. F. Benson (Dodd-Mead); “Virginia,” by Ellen Glasgow (Doubleday-Page), and “The Catfish,” by Charles Marriott (Bobbs-Merrill). The Benson story is the best of them, for it starts off in the deliriously satirical manner of “Mrs. Ames,” but toward the end it grows very serious, and so it rather falls between two manners. But even so, you will get civilized entertainment out of it, for Mr. Benson is always full of penetrating and waggish observations, and his charm never fails. “Virginia” would be better if it had either more or less to do with Virginians. As it is, the author’s portrayal of their peculiarities is incommoded by the story of Jinny Pendleton’s adventures with her very un-Virginian husband, who deserts her for an actress, and the story of those adventures is made a bit unreal by its background. But the book is well written, as novels go in our fair land, and some of its minor characters are fragrant of the Old South. “The Catfish” deals with the life of George Tracy, an Englishman, from the cradle to the altar, and is a serious and ambitious piece of writing. But at the end, it seems to me, Mr. Marriott leaves George unexplained. All the same, the tale has life in it, and you will not nap over it.
So much for the novels that have come to me this month—five mildly good ones and sixteen bad ones, not to mention the half-dozen so wholly bad that I haven’t even mentioned them. My advice to you, if you yearn for fiction on these lazy afternoons, is that you pass over all of them, and go to the better things of yesteryear. Have you ever read “McTeague,” by Frank Norris? You have heard a lot about it, of course, and may be, in the amiable American style, you have talked a lot about it, but have you ever read it? If not, then read it forthwith: you can get it for fifty cents. And if you have read it, then read it again; it is worth it. I do not say the same of Norris’s other work—barring, perhaps, “Blix,” an excellent sentimental comedy, a thing of young love and honest kisses. “The Pit,” when I last looked into it, failed of its old thrill, and “The Octopus” bored me with its far-fetched mysticism. So with “A Man’s Woman,” “Moran of the Lady Letty” and the short stories in “A Deal in Wheat”: I fear that their day is already done. But “McTeague” remains—a truly distinguished piece of writing, a wonderfully painstaking and conscientious study of a third rate man, a permanent and valuable contribution to our national literature. I do not think that Mr. Howells has ever done anything more American, or anything more worthy. Certainly you will find no match for it in the work of Mrs. Wharton, not forgetting “Ethan Frome,” nor in the work of Prof. Herrick, nor in that of Mr. Churchill, nor in that of Miss Johnston. Its one indubitable rival is “Sister Carrie”—and both suffer, curiously enough, from the same fault: a lack of unity in design. Both have their backs broken in the middle. Each is made up of two stories, ineptly welded together. Each reveals a great talent not yet quite sure of itself.
A number of other American books, much talked of a dozen years ago, suggest themselves for re-reading. One of them is Stephen Crane’s “The Red Badge of Courage,” a story greatly over praised at the start and now undeservedly neglected. I haven’t seen a copy in a bookstore for three or four years. But it is still well worth reading, and so are all of Crane’s other war stories—for example, those in the volume entitled “The Little Regiment.” Even better are the three little master pieces in “The Monster,” and particularly “The Blue Hotel,” a grotesque, sardonic, memorable tale—one, indeed, that Joseph Conrad might have written. It is a long, long while since I last read it, but I still see clearly the wild snowstorm in that lonely prairie town, and the cerulean ugliness of the Palace Hotel, and the offhand, incomprehensible doing to death of the nameless Swede. Crane got something rare and difficult into that modest story, and that was the sense of brooding disaster, of cruel and immutable fate, of the eternal meaninglessness of life—in five words, tragedy in the Greek sense. He got the same note into “The Monster,” that incomparable tale of horror, and into many of his war stories, whether of fiction or of fact. Poe usually missed it: most of his tragedies are merely melodramas. But you will find it running from end to end of Joseph Conrad. “Heart of Darkness” is as real a tragedy as “ The Seven Against Thebes.” So is “Lord Jim.” So is “Falk.” So, for that matter, is “Almayer’s Folly.”
Which leads me to recommend Conrad to you again, with an apology if I bore you with too many references to him. If you do not know him at all, you can do no better than begin with “Youth,” perhaps the best short story ever written in English. Here, indeed, is the perfect short story—a veritable slice of life, the picture of a soul on trial, the drama of Everyman upon a superbly mounted stage—a tale inimitably succinct, sympathetic, archetypical and penetrating. Believe me, the best of Kipling might borrow something from “Youth.” The best of Kipling was done while Kipling still had youth himself. It is full of the jauntiness of youth, the charm of youth, the high hope of youth—but it is also full of the blindness of youth. Conrad wrote when he was already a man of middle age—a man looking back, with joy and a clear understanding, upon the memorable moods and gropings of those far-off but unforgotten days. The result is that his story is not merely a chronicle of youth but also an interpretation of youth. It illuminates a universal experience, here lifted to pulsing drama, by the light of a profound philosophy. To read it is, in some sense, to live again. And that, I think, is the highest praise that can be laid upon a work of the imagination.
Bound in the same volume with “Youth” are two other magnificent short stories, “Heart of Darkness” and “The End of the Tether,” both unutterably tragic and both written with such supreme art that all criticism must be silent before them. One cannot describe such stories; as well attempt to describe the last movement of the Fifth Symphony. All three show an elephantine lack of form, a Jovian disdain of all the ancient conventions of storytelling. “Youth” is a story within a story—a clumsy device, here made more clumsy by the obvious absence of all necessity for it. “Heart of Darkness” carries the same burden. “The End of the Tether” starts in the middle and then goes onward in both directions. But once you get the swing of Conrad, you will lose all sense of these awkwardnesses. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the matter, by canons made and provided, that is the way he writes—and that is the way he writes masterpieces. A detailed account of the technical errors and absurdities in “Lord Jim” would fill another book of its size, but “Lord Jim” remains nearly perfect nevertheless. And for all its amazing slowness of tempo, its baffling halts and interlardings, the effect of “Typhoon” is that of stupendous and appalling action, of a huge play of irresistible forces, of a leaping, living thing. Such is the magic of this Mr. Joseph Conrad Korzeniowski, “late master in the merchant service.” At the start, I dare say, you may miss some of it. Its very strangeness requires some degree of preparation, of initiation. But soon or late, I believe and hope, it will grip you and overwhelm you.
But let me have done with Conrad and suggest a few more books before I close. Why not Henry James’s “What Maisie Knew”—a perfect comedy, a riotous and delightful piece of Olympian foolery—and happily free from Mr. James’s more recondite snarls of speech. It is worth a dozen best-sellers of the current crop. It has more good fun in it, and more shrewdness, and more civilized entertainment than all the masterworks of the Athertons and Sinclairs, the Herricks and Frank Danbys, the Phillpottses and Mrs. Humphry Wards, taken together. It is a first rate piece of writing by a first rate man. So is Kipling’s “Kim”; you will like it on second reading better than on first reading, and still better on third reading. So is George Moore’s “Evelyn Innes,” not to mention his “Sister Theresa.” Have you ever read his “Memoirs of my Dead Life”—not the bowdlerized American edition, but the English edition? If not, go order it from your bookseller. It is out of print and growing rare. A copy will cost you $7.50. It is worth at least $7.60. You will find thirteen stories in it, half fiction and half fact—and at least four of them are worthy to rank with the best of our day. Read “The Lovers of Orelay.” If you are a sinner, it will ease your conscience. If you are a saint, it will cure you. And Zola’s “Germinal,” and Moore’s “A Mummer’s Wife,” and Dreiser’s “Jennie Gerhardt,” and Max Beerbohm’s “Zuleika Dobson,” and Bennett’s “Whom God Hath Joined,” and George Ade’s “In Babel,” and Sudermann’s “The Indian Lily,” and Bojer’s “The Power of a Lie,” and London’s “The Call of the Wild,” and Meredith’s unfinished “Celt and Saxon”—all good books, too 1ittle praised, too little read. They will fill your holidays with delight; they will give you pleasant memories. And “Huckleberry Finn”—I was almost forgetting “Huckleberry Finn”! What? You have read it? Of course you have! But such books are not sent into the world to be read once. As well read the Book of Mark once, or “Hamlet,” or “Alice in Wonderland”! I myself have read old “Huck”—but I won’t tell you the number of times. I pull down the frayed volume every spring and read it again. I have been doing it every spring since I was nine years old. I expect to be doing it down the slippered sixties, into the rheumatic seventies. I enjoy it more every year. I wouldn’t trade that one book—it is a genuine First Edition!—for the whole works of Dickens, Bulwer-Lytton and Nathaniel Hawthorne, plus Dr. Eliot’s five-foot shelf, plus the Encyclopedia Britannica, plus the Koran and the Zend-Avesta, plus all the best-sellers done in Indiana since the Mexican War.
(Source: Hathitrust.org, https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=njp.32101076380425;view=1up;seq=535;size=125)