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Novels and Agnosticism

The novel of our times is susceptible of many definitions. The American
publishers of Railway libraries think that it is forty or fifty double-
column pages of pirated English fiction. Readers of the "New York Ledger"
suppose it to be a romance of angelic virtue at last triumphant over
satanic villany. The aristocracy of culture describe it as a philosophic
analysis of human character and motives, with an agnostic bias on the
analyst's part. Schoolboys are under the impression that it is a tale of
Western chivalry and Indian outrage--price, ten cents. Most of us agree in
the belief that it should contain a brace or two of lovers, a suspense,
and a solution.

To investigate the nature of the novel in the abstract would involve going
back to the very origin of things. It would imply the recognition of a
certain faculty of the mind, known as imagination; and of a certain fact
in history, called art. Art and imagination are correlatives,--one implies
the other. Together, they may be said to constitute the characteristic
badge and vindication of human nature; imagination is the badge, and art
is the vindication. Reason, which gets so much vulgar glorification, is,
after all, a secondary quality. It is posterior to imagination,--it is one
of the means by which imagination seeks to realize its ends. Some animals
reason, or seem to do so: but the most cultivated ape or donkey has not
yet composed a sonnet, or a symphony, or "an arrangement in green and
yellow." Man still retains a few prerogatives, although, like Aesop's
stag, which despised the legs that bore it away from the hounds, and
extolled the antlers that entangled it in the thicket,--so man often
magnifies those elements of his nature that least deserve it.

But, before celebrating art and imagination, we should have a clear idea
what those handsome terms mean. In the broadest sense, imagination is the
cause of the effect we call progress. It marks all forms of human effort
towards a better state of things. It embraces a perception of existing
shortcomings, and an aspiration towards a loftier ideal. It is, in fact, a
truly divine force in man, reminding him of his heavenly origin, and
stimulating him to rise again to the level whence he fell. For it has
glimpses of the divine Image within or behind the material veil; and its
constant impulse is to tear aside the veil and grasp the image. The world,
let us say, is a gross and finite translation of an infinite and perfect
Word; and imagination is the intuition of that perfection, born in the
human heart, and destined forever to draw mankind into closer harmony with
it.

In common speech, however, imagination is deprived of this broader
significance, and is restricted to its relations with art. Art is not
progress, though progress implies art. It differs from progress chiefly in
disclaiming the practical element. You cannot apply a poem, a picture, or
a strain of music, to material necessities; they are not food, clothing,
or shelter. Only after these physical wants are assuaged, does art
supervene. Its sphere is exclusively mental and moral. But this definition
is not adequate; a further distinction is needed. For such things as
mathematics, moral philosophy, and political economy also belong to the
mental sphere, and yet they are not art. But these, though not actually
existing on the plane of material necessities, yet do exist solely in
order to relieve such necessities. Unlike beauty, they are not their own
excuse for being. Their embodiment is utilitarian, that of art is
aesthetic. Political economy, for example, shows me how to buy two drinks
for the same price I used to pay for one; while art inspires me to
transmute a pewter mug into a Cellini goblet. My physical nature, perhaps,
prefers two drinks to one; but, if my taste be educated, and I be not too
thirsty, I would rather drink once from the Cellini goblet than twice from
the mug. Political economy gravitates towards the material level; art
seeks incarnation only in order to stimulate anew the same spiritual
faculties that generated it. Art is the production, by means of
appearances, of the illusion of a loftier reality; and imagination is the
faculty which holds that loftier reality up for imitation.

The disposition of these preliminaries brings us once more in sight of the
goal of our pilgrimage. The novel, despite its name, is no new thing, but
an old friend in a modern dress. Ever since the time of Cadmus,--ever
since language began to express thought as well as emotion,--men have
betrayed the impulse to utter in forms of literary art,--in poetry and
story,--their conceptions of the world around them. According to many
philologists, poetry was the original form of human speech. Be that as it
may, whatever flows into the mind, from the spectacle of nature and of
mankind, that influx the mind tends instinctively to reproduce, in a shape
accordant with its peculiar bias and genius. And those minds in which
imagination is predominant, impart to their reproductions a balance and
beauty which stamp them as art. Art--and literary art especially--is the
only evidence we have that this universal frame of things has relation to
our minds, and is a universe and not a poliverse. Outside revelation, it
is our best assurance of an intelligent purpose in creation.

Novels, then, instead of being (as some persons have supposed) a wilful
and corrupt conspiracy on the part of the evilly disposed, against the
peace and prosperity of the realm, may claim a most ancient and
indefeasible right to existence. They, with their ancestors and near
relatives, constitute Literature,--without which the human race would be
little better than savages. For the effect of pure literature upon a
receptive mind is something more than can be definitely stated. Like
sunshine upon a landscape, it is a kind of miracle. It demands from its
disciple almost as much as it gives him, and is never revealed save to the
disinterested and loving eye. In our best moments, it touches us most
deeply; and when the sentiment of human brotherhood kindles most warmly
within us, we discover in literature an exquisite answering ardor. When
everything that can be, has been said about a true work of art, its finest
charm remains,--the charm derived from a source beyond the conscious reach
even of the artist.

The novel, then, must be pure literature; as much so as the poem. But
poetry--now that the day of the broad Homeric epic is past, or temporarily
eclipsed--appeals to a taste too exclusive and abstracted for the demands
of modern readers. Its most accommodating metre fails to house our endless
variety of mood and movement; it exacts from the student an exaltation
above the customary level of thought and sentiment greater than he can
readily afford. The poet of old used to clothe in the garb of verse his
every observation on life and nature; but to-day he reserves for it only
his most ideal and abstract conceptions. The merit of Cervantes is not so
much that he laughed Spain's chivalry away, as that he heralded the modern
novel of character and manners. It is the latest, most pliable, most
catholic solution of the old problem,--how to unfold man to himself. It
improves on the old methods, while missing little of their excellence. No
one can read a great novel without feeling that, from its outwardly
prosaic pages, strains of genuine poetry have ever and anon reached his
ears. It does not obtrude itself; it is not there for him who has not
skill to listen for it: but for him who has ears, it is like the music of
a bird, denning itself amidst the innumerable murmurs of the forest.

So, the ideal novel, conforming in every part to the behests of the
imagination, should produce, by means of literary art, the illusion of a
loftier reality. This excludes the photographic method of novel-writing.
"That is a false effort in art," says Goethe, towards the close of his
long and splendid career, "which, in giving reality to the appearance,
goes so far as to leave in it nothing but the common, every-day actual."
It is neither the actual, nor Chinese copies of the actual, that we demand
of art. Were art merely the purveyor of such things, she might yield her
crown to the camera and the stenographer; and divine imagination would
degenerate into vulgar inventiveness. Imagination is incompatible with
inventiveness, or imitation. Imitation is death, imagination is life.
Imitation is servitude, imagination is royalty. He who claims the name of
artist must rise to that vision of a loftier reality--a more true because
a more beautiful world--which only imagination can reveal. A truer world,
--for the world of facts is not and cannot be true. It is barren,
incoherent, misleading. But behind every fact there is a truth: and these
truths are enlightening, unifying, creative. Fasten your hold upon them,
and facts will become your servants instead of your tyrants. No charm of
detail will be lost, no homely picturesque circumstance, no touch of human
pathos or humor; but all hardness, rigidity, and finality will disappear,
and your story will be not yours alone, but that of every one who feels
and thinks. Spirit gives universality and meaning; but alas! for this new
gospel of the auctioneer's catalogue, and the crackling of thorns under a
pot. He who deals with facts only, deprives his work of gradation and
distinction. One fact, considered in itself, has no less importance than
any other; a lump of charcoal is as valuable as a diamond. But that is the
philosophy of brute beasts and Digger Indians. A child, digging on the
beach, may shape a heap of sand into a similitude of Vesuvius; but is it
nothing that Vesuvius towers above the clouds, and overwhelms Pompeii?


* * * * *

In proceeding from the general to the particular,--to the novel as it
actually exists in England and America,--attention will be confined
strictly to the contemporary outlook. The new generation of novelists (by
which is intended not those merely living in this age, but those who
actively belong to it) differ in at least one fundamental respect from the
later representatives of the generation preceding them. Thackeray and
Dickens did not deliberately concern themselves about a philosophy of
life. With more or less complacency, more or less cynicism, they accepted
the religious and social canons which had grown to be the commonplace of
the first half of this century. They pictured men and women, not as
affected by questions, but as affected by one another. The morality and
immorality of their personages were of the old familiar Church-of-England
sort; there was no speculation as to whether what had been supposed to be
wrong was really right, and _vice versa_. Such speculations, in various
forms and degrees of energy, appear in the world periodically; but the
public conscience during the last thirty or forty years had been gradually
making itself comfortable after the disturbances consequent upon the
French Revolution; the theoretical rights of man had been settled for the
moment; and interest was directed no longer to the assertion and support
of these rights, but to the social condition and character which were
their outcome. Good people were those who climbed through reverses and
sorrows towards the conventional heaven; bad people were those who, in
spite of worldly and temporary successes and triumphs, gravitated towards
the conventional hell. Novels designed on this basis in so far filled the
bill, as the phrase is: their greater or less excellence depended solely
on the veracity with which the aspect, the temperament, and the conduct of
the _dramatis personae_ were reported, and upon the amount of ingenuity
wherewith the web of events and circumstances was woven, and the
conclusion reached. Nothing more was expected, and, in general, little or
nothing more was attempted. Little more, certainly, will be found in the
writings of Thackeray or of Balzac, who, it is commonly admitted, approach
nearest to perfection of any novelists of their time. There was nothing
genuine or commanding in the metaphysical dilettanteism of Bulwer: the
philosophical speculations of Georges Sand are the least permanently
interesting feature of her writings; and the same might in some measure be
affirmed of George Eliot, whose gloomy wisdom finally confesses its
inability to do more than advise us rather to bear those ills we have than
fly to others that we know not of. As to Nathaniel Hawthorne, he cannot
properly be instanced in this connection; for he analyzed chiefly those
parts of human nature which remain substantially unaltered in the face of
whatever changes of opinion, civilization, and religion. The truth that he
brings to light is not the sensational fact of a fashion or a period, but
a verity of the human heart, which may foretell, but can never be affected
by, anything which that heart may conceive. In other words, Hawthorne
belonged neither to this nor to any other generation of writers further
than that his productions may be used as a test of the inner veracity of
all the rest.

But of late years a new order of things has been coming into vogue, and
the new novelists have been among the first to reflect it; and of these
the Americans have shown themselves among the most susceptible. Science,
or the investigation of the phenomena of existence (in opposition to
philosophy, the investigation of the phenomena of being), has proved
nature to be so orderly and self-sufficient, and inquiry as to the origin
of the primordial atom so unproductive and quixotic, as to make it
convenient and indeed reasonable to accept nature as a self-existing fact,
and to let all the rest--if rest there be--go. From this point of view,
God and a future life retire into the background; not as finally
disproved,--because denial, like affirmation, must, in order to be final,
be logically supported; and spirit is, if not illogical, at any rate
outside the domain of logic,--but as being a hopelessly vague and
untrustworthy hypothesis. The Bible is a human book; Christ was a
gentleman, related to the Buddha and Plato families; Joseph was an ill-
used man; death, so far as we have any reason to believe, is annihilation
of personal existence; life is--the predicament of the body previous to
death; morality is the enlightened selfishness of the greatest number;
civilization is the compromises men make with one another in order to get
the most they can out of the world; wisdom is acknowledgment of these
propositions; folly is to hanker after what may lie beyond the sphere of
sense. The supporter of these doctrines by no means permits himself to be
regarded as a rampant and dogmatic atheist; he is simply the modest and
humble doubter of what he cannot prove. He even recognizes the persistence
of the religious instinct in man, and caters to it by a new religion
suited to the times--the Religion of Humanity. Thus he is secure at all
points: for if the religion of the Bible turn out to be true, his
disappointment will be an agreeable one; and if it turns out false, he
will not be disappointed at all. He is an agnostic--a person bound to be
complacent whatever happens. He may indulge a gentle regret, a musing
sadness, a smiling pensiveness; but he will never refuse a comfortable
dinner, and always wear something soft next his skin, nor can he
altogether avoid the consciousness of his intellectual superiority.

Agnosticism, which reaches forward into nihilism on one side, and extends
back into liberal Christianity on the other, marks, at all events, a
definite turning-point from what has been to what is to come. The human
mind, in the course of its long journey, is passing through a dark place,
and is, as it were, whistling to keep up its courage. It is a period of
doubt: what it will result in remains to be seen; but analogy leads us to
infer that this doubt, like all others, will be succeeded by a
comparatively definite belief in something--no matter what. It is a
transient state--the interval between one creed and another. The agnostic
no longer holds to what is behind him, nor knows what lies before, so he
contents himself with feeling the ground beneath his feet. That, at least,
though the heavens fall, is likely to remain; meanwhile, let the heavens
take care of themselves. It may be the part of valor to champion divine
revelation, but the better part of valor is discretion, and if divine
revelation prove true, discretion will be none the worse off. On the other
hand, to champion a myth is to make one's self ridiculous, and of being
ridiculous the agnostic has a consuming fear. From the superhuman
disinterestedness of the theory of the Religion of Humanity, before which
angels might quail, he flinches not, but when it comes to the risk of
being laughed at by certain sagacious persons he confesses that bravery
has its limits. He dares do all that may become an agnostic,--who dares do
more is none.

But, however open to criticism this phase of thought may be, it is a
genuine phase, and the proof is the alarm and the shifts that it has
brought about in the opposite camp. "Established" religion finds the
foundation of her establishment undermined, and, like the lady in Hamlet's
play, she doth protest too much. In another place, all manner of odd
superstitions and quasi-miracles are cropping up and gaining credence, as
if, since the immortality of the soul cannot be proved by logic, it should
be smuggled into belief by fraud and violence--that is, by the testimony
of the bodily senses themselves. Taking a comprehensive view of the whole
field, therefore, it seems to be divided between discreet and supercilious
skepticism on one side, and, on the other, the clamorous jugglery of
charlatanism. The case is not really so bad as that: nihilists are not
discreet and even the Bishop of Rome is not necessarily a charlatan.
Nevertheless, the outlook may fairly be described as confused and the
issue uncertain. And--to come without further preface to the subject of
this paper--it is with this material that the modern novelist, so far as
he is a modern and not a future novelist, or a novelist _temporis acti_,
has to work. Unless a man have the gift to forecast the years, or, at
least, to catch the first ray of the coming light, he can hardly do better
than attend to what is under his nose. He may hesitate to identify himself
with agnosticism, but he can scarcely avoid discussing it, either in
itself or in its effects. He must entertain its problems; and the
personages of his story, if they do not directly advocate or oppose
agnostic views, must show in their lives either confirmation or disproof
of agnostic principles. It is impossible, save at the cost of affectation
or of ignorance, to escape from the spirit of the age. It is in the air we
breathe, and, whether we are fully conscious thereof or not, our lives and
thoughts must needs be tinctured by it.

Now, art is creative; but Mephistopheles, the spirit that denies, is
destructive. A negative attitude of mind is not favorable for the
production of works of art. The best periods of art have also been periods
of spiritual or philosophical convictions. The more a man doubts, the more
he disintegrates and the less he constructs. He has in him no central
initial certainty round which all other matters of knowledge or
investigation may group themselves in symmetrical relation. He may analyze
to his heart's content, but must be wary of organizing. If creation is not
of God, if nature is not the expression of the contact between an infinite
and a finite being, then the universe and everything in it are accidents,
which might have been otherwise or might have not been at all; there is no
design in them nor purpose, no divine and eternal significance. This being
conceded, what meaning would there be in designing works of art? If art
has not its prototype in creation, if all that we see and do is chance,
uninspired by a controlling and forming intelligence behind or within it,
then to construct a work of art would be to make something arbitrary and
grotesque, something unreal and fugitive, something out of accord with the
general sense (or nonsense) of things, something with no further basis or
warrant than is supplied by the maker's idle and irresponsible fancy. But
since no man cares to expend the trained energies of his mind upon the
manufacture of toys, it will come to pass (upon the accidental hypothesis
of creation) that artists will become shy of justifying their own title.
They will adopt the scientific method of merely collecting and describing
phenomena; but the phenomena will no longer be arranged as parts or
developments of a central controlling idea, because such an arrangement
would no longer seem to be founded on the truth: the gratification which
it gives to the mind would be deemed illusory, the result of tradition and
prejudice; or, in other words, what is true being found no longer
consistent with what we have been accustomed to call beauty, the latter
would cease to be an object of desire, though something widely alien to it
might usurp its name. If beauty be devoid of independent right to be, and
definable only as an attribute of truth, then undoubtedly the cynosure to-
day may be the scarecrow of to-morrow, and _vice versâ_, according to our
varying conception of what truth is.

And, as a matter of fact, art already shows the effects of the agnostic
influence. Artists have begun to doubt whether their old conceptions of
beauty be not fanciful and silly. They betray a tendency to eschew the
loftier flights of the imagination, and confine themselves to what they
call facts. Critics deprecate idealism as something fit only for children,
and extol the courage of seeing and representing things as they are.
Sculpture is either a stern student of modern trousers and coat-tails or a
vapid imitator of classic prototypes. Painters try all manner of
experiments, and shrink from painting beneath the surface of their canvas.
Much of recent effort in the different branches of art comes to us in the
form of "studies," but the complete work still delays to be born. We would
not so much mind having our old idols and criterions done away with were
something new and better, or as good, substituted for them. But apparently
nothing definite has yet been decided on. Doubt still reigns, and, once
more, doubt is not creative. One of two things must presently happen. The
time will come when we must stop saying that we do not know whether or not
God, and all that God implies, exists, and affirm definitely and finally
either that he does not exist or that he does. That settled, we shall soon
see what will become of art. If there is a God, he will be understood and
worshipped, not superstitiously and literally as heretofore, but in a new
and enlightened spirit; and an art will arise commensurate with this new
and loftier revelation. If there is no God, it is difficult to see how art
can have the face to show herself any more. There is no place for her in
the Religion of Humanity; to be true and living she can be nothing which
it has thus far entered into the heart of man to call beautiful; and she
could only serve to remind us of certain vague longings and aspirations
now proved to be as false as they were vain. Art is not an orchid: it
cannot grow in the air. Unless its root can be traced as deep down as
Yggdrasil, it will wither and vanish, and be forgotten as it ought to be;
and as for the cowslip by the river's brim, a yellow cowslip it shall be,
and nothing more; and the light that never was on sea or land shall be
permanently extinguished, in the interests of common sense and economy,
and (what is least inviting of all to the unregenerate mind) we shall
speedily get rid of the notion that we have lost anything worth
preserving.

This, however, is only what may be, and our concern at present is with
things as they are. It has been observed that American writers have shown
themselves more susceptible of the new influences than most others, partly
no doubt from a natural sensitiveness of organization, but in some measure
also because there are with us no ruts and fetters of old tradition from
which we must emancipate ourselves before adopting anything new. We have
no past, in the European sense, and so are ready for whatever the present
or the future may have to suggest. Nevertheless, the novelist who, in a
larger degree than any other, seems to be the literary parent of our own
best men of fiction, is himself not an American, nor even an Englishman,
but a Russian--Turguénieff. His series of extraordinary novels, translated
into English and French, is altogether the most important fact in the
literature of fiction of the last twelve years. To read his books you
would scarcely imagine that their author could have had any knowledge of
the work of his predecessors in the same field. Originality is a term
indiscriminately applied, and generally of trifling significance, but so
far as any writer may be original, Turguénieff is so. He is no less
original in the general scheme and treatment of his stories than in their
details. Whatever he produces has the air of being the outcome of his
personal experience and observation. He even describes his characters,
their aspect, features, and ruling traits, in a novel and memorable
manner. He seizes on them from a new point of vantage, and uses scarcely
any of the hackneyed and conventional devices for bringing his portraits
before our minds; yet no writer, not even Carlyle, has been more vivid,
graphic, and illuminating than he. Here are eyes that owe nothing to other
eyes, but examine and record for themselves. Having once taken up a
character he never loses his grasp on it: on the contrary, he masters it
more and more, and only lets go of it when the last recesses of its
organism have been explored. In the quality and conduct of his plots he is
equally unprecedented. His scenes are modern, and embody characteristic
events and problems in the recent history of Russia. There is in their
arrangement no attempt at symmetry, nor poetic justice. Temperament and
circumstances are made to rule, and against their merciless fiat no appeal
is allowed. Evil does evil to the end; weakness never gathers strength;
even goodness never varies from its level: it suffers, but is not
corrupted; it is the goodness of instinct, not of struggle and aspiration;
it happens to belong to this or that person, just as his hair happens to
be black or brown. Everything in the surroundings and the action is to the
last degree matter-of-fact, commonplace, inevitable; there are no
picturesque coincidences, no providential interferences, no desperate
victories over fate; the tale, like the world of the materialist, moves
onward from a predetermined beginning to a helpless and tragic close. And
yet few books have been written of deeper and more permanent fascination
than these. Their grim veracity; the creative sympathy and steady
dispassionateness of their portrayal of mankind; their constancy of
motive, and their sombre earnestness, have been surpassed by none. This
earnestness is worth dwelling upon for a moment. It bears no likeness to
the dogmatism of the bigot or the fanaticism of the enthusiast. It is the
concentration of a broadly gifted masculine mind, devoting its unstinted
energies to depicting certain aspects of society and civilization, which
are powerfully representative of the tendencies of the day. "Here is the
unvarnished fact--give heed to it!" is the unwritten motto. The author
avoids betraying, either explicitly or implicitly, the tendency of his own
sympathies; not because he fears to have them known, but because he holds
it to be his office simply to portray, and to leave judgment thereupon
where, in any case, it must ultimately rest--with the world of his
readers. He tells us what is; it is for us to consider whether it also
must be and shall be. Turguénieff is an artist by nature, yet his books
are not intentionally works of art; they are fragments of history,
differing from real life only in presenting such persons and events as are
commandingly and exhaustively typical, and excluding all others. This
faculty of selection is one of the highest artistic faculties, and it
appears as much in the minor as in the major features of the narrative. It
indicates that Turguénieff might, if he chose, produce a story as
faultlessly symmetrical as was ever framed. Why, then, does he not so
choose? The reason can only be that he deems the truth-seeming of his
narrative would thereby be impaired. "He is only telling a story," the
reader would say, "and he shapes the events and persons so as to fit the
plot." But is this reason reasonable? To those who believe that God has no
hand in the ordering of human affairs, it undoubtedly is reasonable. To
those who believe the contrary, however, it appears as if the story of no
human life or complex of lives could be otherwise than a rounded and
perfect work of art--provided only that the spectator takes note, not
merely of the superficial accidents and appearances, but also of the
underlying divine purpose and significance. The absence of this
recognition in Turguénieff's novels is the explanation of them: holding
the creed their author does, he could not have written them otherwise;
and, on the other hand, had his creed been different, he very likely would
not have written novels at all.

The pioneer, in whatever field of thought or activity, is apt to be also
the most distinguished figure therein. The consciousness of being the
first augments the keenness of his impressions, and a mind that can see
and report in advance of others a new order of things may claim a finer
organization than the ordinary. The vitality of nature animates him who
has insight to discern her at first hand, whereas his followers miss the
freshness of the morning, because, instead of discovering, they must be
content to illustrate and refine. Those of our writers who betray
Turguénieff's influence are possibly his superiors in finish and culture,
but their faculty of convincing and presenting is less. Their interest in
their own work seems less serious than his; they may entertain us more,
but they do not move and magnetize so much. The persons and events of
their stories are conscientiously studied, and are nothing if not natural;
but they lack distinction. In an epitome of life so concise as the longest
novel must needs be, to use any but types is waste of time and space. A
typical character is one who combines the traits or beliefs of a certain
class to which he is affiliated--who is, practically, all of them and
himself besides; and, when we know him, there is nothing left worth
knowing about the others. In Shakespeare's Hamlet and Enobarbus, in
Fielding's Squire Western, in Walter Scott's Edie Ochiltree and Meg
Merrilies, in Balzac's Père Goriot and Madame Marneff, in Thackeray's
Colonel Newcome and Becky Sharp, in Turguénieff's Bazarof and Dimitri
Roudine, we meet persons who exhaust for us the groups to which they
severally belong. Bazarof, the nihilist, for instance, reveals to us the
motives and influences that have made nihilism, so that we feel that
nothing essential on that score remains to be learnt.

The ability to recognize and select types is a test of a novelist's talent
and experience. It implies energy to rise above the blind walls of one's
private circle of acquaintance; the power to perceive what phases of
thought and existence are to be represented as well as who represents
them; the sagacity to analyze the age or the moment and reproduce its
dominant features. The feat is difficult, and, when done, by no means
blows its own trumpet. On the contrary, the reader must open his eyes to
be aware of it. He finds the story clear and easy of comprehension; the
characters come home to him familiarly and remain distinctly in his
memory; he understands something which was, till now, vague to him: but he
is as likely to ascribe this to an exceptional lucidity in his own mental
condition as to any special merit in the author. Indeed, it often happens
that the author who puts out-of-the-way personages into his stories--
characters that represent nothing but themselves, or possibly some
eccentricity of invention on their author's part, will gain the latter a
reputation for cleverness higher than his fellow's who portrays mankind in
its masses as well as in its details. But the finest imagination is not
that which evolves strange images, but that which explains seeming
contradictions, and reveals the unity within the difference and the
harmony beneath the discord.

Were we to compare our fictitious literature, as a whole, with that of
England, the balance must be immeasurably on the English side. Even
confining ourselves to to-day, and to the prospect of to-morrow, it must
be conceded that, in settled method, in guiding tradition, in training and
associations both personal and inherited, the average English novelist is
better circumstanced than the American. Nevertheless, the English novelist
is not at present writing better novels than the American. The reason
seems to be that he uses no material which has not been in use for
hundreds of years; and to say that such material begins to lose its
freshness is not putting the case too strongly. He has not been able to
detach himself from the paralyzing background of English conventionality.
The vein was rich, but it is worn out; and the half-dozen pioneers had all
the luck.

There is no commanding individual imagination in England--nor, to say the
truth, does there seem to be any in America. But we have what they have
not--a national imaginative tendency. There are no fetters upon our fancy;
and, however deeply our real estate may be mortgaged, there is freedom for
our ideas. England has not yet appreciated the true inwardness of a
favorite phrase of ours,--a new deal. And yet she is tired to death of her
own stale stories; and when, by chance, any one of her writers happens to
chirp out a note a shade different from the prevailing key, the whole
nation pounces down upon him, with a shriek of half-incredulous joy, and
buys him up, at the rate of a million copies a year. Our own best writers
are more read in England, or, at any rate, more talked about, than their
native crop; not so much, perhaps, because they are different as because
their difference is felt to be of a significant and typical kind. It has
in it a gleam of the new day. They are realistic; but realism, so far as
it involves a faithful study of nature, is useful. The illusion of a
loftier reality, at which we should aim, must be evolved from adequate
knowledge of reality itself. The spontaneous and assured faith, which is
the mainspring of sane imagination, must be preceded by the doubt and
rejection of what is lifeless and insincere. We desire no resurrection of
the Ann Radclyffe type of romance: but the true alternative to this is not
such a mixture of the police gazette and the medical reporter as Emile
Zola offers us. So far as Zola is conscientious, let him live; but, in so
far as he is revolting, let him die. Many things in the world seem ugly
and purposeless; but to a deeper intelligence than ours, they are a part
of beauty and design. What is ugly and irrelevant, can never enter, as
such, into a work of art; because the artist is bound, by a sacred
obligation, to show us the complete curve only,--never the undeveloped
fragments.

But were the firmament of England still illuminated with her Dickenses,
her Thackerays, and her Brontës, I should still hold our state to be
fuller of promise than hers. It may be admitted that almost everything was
against our producing anything good in literature. Our men, in the first
place, had to write for nothing; because the publisher, who can steal a
readable English novel, will not pay for an American novel, for the mere
patriotic gratification of enabling its American author to write it. In
the second place, they had nothing to write about, for the national life
was too crude and heterogeneous for ordinary artistic purposes. Thirdly,
they had no one to write for: because, although, in one sense, there might
be readers enough, in a higher sense there were scarcely any,--that is to
say, there was no organized critical body of literary opinion, from which
an author could confidently look to receive his just meed of encouragement
and praise. Yet, in spite of all this, and not to mention honored names
that have ceased or are ceasing to cast their living weight into the
scale, we are contributing much that is fresh and original, and something,
it may be, that is of permanent value, to literature. We have accepted the
situation; and, since no straw has been vouchsafed us to make our bricks
with, we are trying manfully to make them without.

It will not be necessary, however, to call the roll of all the able and
popular gentlemen who are contending in the forlorn hope against
disheartening odds; and as for the ladies who have honored our literature
by their contributions, it will perhaps be well to adopt regarding them a
course analogous to that which Napoleon is said to have pursued with the
letters sent to him while in Italy. He left them unread until a certain
time had elapsed, and then found that most of them no longer needed
attention. We are thus brought face to face with the two men with whom
every critic of American novelists has to reckon; who represent what is
carefullest and newest in American fiction; and it remains to inquire how
far their work has been moulded by the skeptical or radical spirit of
which Turguénieff is the chief exemplar.

The author of "Daisy Miller" had been writing for several years before the
bearings of his course could be confidently calculated. Some of his
earlier tales,--as, for example, "The Madonna of the Future,"--while
keeping near reality on one side, are on the other eminently fanciful and
ideal. He seemed to feel the attraction of fairyland, but to lack
resolution to swallow it whole; so, instead of idealizing both persons and
plot, as Hawthorne had ventured to do, he tried to persuade real persons
to work out an ideal destiny. But the tact, delicacy, and reticence with
which these attempts were made did not blind him to the essential
incongruity; either realism or idealism had to go, and step by step he
dismissed the latter, until at length Turguénieff's current caught him. By
this time, however, his culture had become too wide, and his independent
views too confirmed, to admit of his yielding unconditionally to the great
Russian. Especially his critical familiarity with French literature
operated to broaden, if at the same time to render less trenchant, his
method and expression. His characters are drawn with fastidious care, and
closely follow the tones and fashions of real life. Each utterance is so
exactly like what it ought to be that the reader feels the same sort of
pleased surprise as is afforded by a phonograph which repeats, with all
the accidental pauses and inflections, the speech spoken into it. Yet the
words come through a medium; they are not quite spontaneous; these figures
have not the sad, human inevitableness of Turguénieff's people. The reason
seems to be (leaving the difference between the genius of the two writers
out of account) that the American, unlike the Russian, recognizes no
tragic importance in the situation. To the latter, the vision of life is
so ominous that his voice waxes sonorous and terrible; his eyes, made keen
by foreboding, see the leading elements of the conflict, and them only; he
is no idle singer of an empty day, but he speaks because speech springs
out of him. To his mind, the foundations of human welfare are in jeopardy,
and it is full time to decide what means may avert the danger. But the
American does not think any cataclysm is impending, or if any there be,
nobody can help it. The subjects that best repay attention are the minor
ones of civilization, culture, behavior; how to avoid certain vulgarities
and follies, how to inculcate certain principles: and to illustrate these
points heroic types are not needed. In other words, the situation being
unheroic, so must the actors be; for, apart from the inspirations of
circumstances, Napoleon no more than John Smith is recognizable as a hero.

Now, in adopting this view, a writer places himself under several manifest
disadvantages. If you are to be an agnostic, it is better (for novel-
writing purposes) not to be a complacent or resigned one. Otherwise your
characters will find it difficult to show what is in them. A man reveals
and classifies himself in proportion to the severity of the condition or
action required of him, hence the American novelist's people are in
considerable straits to make themselves adequately known to us. They
cannot lay bare their inmost soul over a cup of tea or a picture by Corôt;
so, in order to explain themselves, they must not only submit to
dissection at the author's hands, but must also devote no little time and
ingenuity to dissecting themselves and one another. But dissection is one
thing, and the living word rank from the heart and absolutely reeking of
the human creature that uttered it--the word that Turguénieff's people are
constantly uttering--is another. Moreover, in the dearth of commanding
traits and stirring events, there is a continual temptation to magnify
those which are petty and insignificant. Instead of a telescope to sweep
the heavens, we are furnished with a microscope to detect infusoria. We
want a description of a mountain; and, instead of receiving an outline,
naked and severe, perhaps, but true and impressive, we are introduced to a
tiny field on its immeasurable side, and we go botanizing and insect-
hunting there. This is realism; but it is the realism of texture, not of
form and relation. It encourages our glance to be near-sighted instead of
comprehensive. Above all, there is a misgiving that we do not touch the
writer's true quality, and that these scenes of his, so elaborately and
conscientiously prepared, have cost him much thought and pains, but not
one throb of the heart or throe of the spirit. The experiences that he
depicts have not, one fancies, marked wrinkles on his forehead or turned
his hair gray. There are two kinds of reserve--the reserve which feels
that its message is too mighty for it, and the reserve which feels that it
is too mighty for its message. Our new school of writers is reserved, but
its reserve does not strike one as being of the former kind. It cannot be
said of any one of Mr. James's stories, "This is his best," or "This is
his worst," because no one of them is all one way. They have their phases
of strength and veracity, and, also, phases that are neither veracious nor
strong. The cause may either lie in a lack of experience in a certain
direction on the writer's part; or else in his reluctance to write up to
the experience he has. The experience in question is not of the ways of
the world,--concerning which Mr. James has every sign of being politely
familiar,--nor of men and women in their every-day aspect; still less of
literary ways and means, for of these, in his own line, he is a master.
The experience referred to is experience of passion. If Mr. James be not
incapable of describing passion, at all events he has still to show that
he is capable of it. He has introduced us to many characters that seem to
have in them capacity for the highest passion,--as witness Christina
Light,--and yet he has never allowed them an opportunity to develop it. He
seems to evade the situation; but the evasion is managed with so much
plausibility that, although we may be disappointed, or even irritated, and
feel, more or less vaguely, that we have been unfairly dealt with, we are
unable to show exactly where or how the unfairness comes in. Thus his
novels might be compared to a beautiful face, full of culture and good
breeding, but lacking that fire of the eye and fashion of the lip that
betray a living human soul.

The other one of the two writers whose names are so often mentioned
together, seems to have taken up the subject of our domestic and social
pathology; and the minute care and conscientious veracity which he has
brought to bear upon his work has not been surpassed, even by Shakespeare.
But, if I could venture a criticism upon his productions, it would be to
the effect that there is not enough fiction in them. They are elaborate
and amiable reports of what we see around us. They are not exactly
imaginative,--in the sense in which I have attempted to define the word.
There are two ways of warning a man against unwholesome life--one is, to
show him a picture of disease; the other is, to show him a picture of
health. The former is the negative, the latter the positive treatment.
Both have their merits; but the latter is, perhaps, the better adapted to
novels, the former to essays. A novelist should not only know what he has
got; he should also know what he wants. His mind should have an active, or
theorizing, as well as a passive, or contemplative, side. He should have
energy to discount the people he personally knows; the power to perceive
what phases of thought are to be represented, as well as to describe the
persons who happen to be their least inadequate representatives; the
sagacity to analyze the age or the moment, and to reveal its tendency and
meaning. Mr. Howells has produced a great deal of finely wrought tapestry;
but does not seem, as yet, to have found a hall fit to adorn it with.

And yet Mr. James and Mr. Howells have done more than all the rest of us
to make our literature respectable during the last ten years. If texture
be the object, they have brought texture to a fineness never surpassed
anywhere. They have discovered charm and grace in much that was only blank
before. They have detected and described points of human nature hitherto
unnoticed, which, if not intrinsically important, will one day be made
auxiliary to the production of pictures of broader as well as minuter
veracity than have heretofore been produced. All that seems wanting thus
far is a direction, an aim, a belief. Agnosticism has brought about a
pause for a while, and no doubt a pause is preferable to some kinds of
activity. It may enable us, when the time comes to set forward again, to
do so with better equipment and more intelligent purpose. It will not do
to be always at a prophetic heat of enthusiasm, sympathy, denunciation:
the coolly critical mood is also useful to prune extravagance and promote
a sense of responsibility. The novels of Mr. James and of Mr. Howells have
taught us that men and women are creatures of infinitely complicated
structure, and that even the least of these complications, if it is
portrayed at all, is worth portraying truthfully. But we cannot forget, on
the other hand, that honest emotion and hearty action are necessary to the
wholesomeness of society, because in their absence society is afflicted
with a lamentable sameness and triviality; the old primitive impulses
remain, but the food on which they are compelled to feed is insipid and
unsustaining; our eyes are turned inward instead of outward, and each one
of us becomes himself the Rome towards which all his roads lead. Such
books as these authors have written are not the Great American Novel,
because they take life and humanity not in their loftier, but in their
lesser manifestations. They are the side scenes and the background of a
story that has yet to be written. That story will have the interest not
only of the collision of private passions and efforts, but of the great
ideas and principles which characterize and animate a nation. It will
discriminate between what is accidental and what is permanent, between
what is realistic and what is real, between what is sentimental and what
is sentiment. It will show us not only what we are, but what we are to be;
not only what to avoid, but what to do. It will rest neither in the tragic
gloom of Turguénieff, nor in the critical composure of James, nor in the
gentle deprecation of Howells, but will demonstrate that the weakness of
man is the motive and condition of his strength. It will not shrink from
romance, nor from ideality, nor from artistic completeness, because it
will know at what depths and heights of life these elements are truly
operative. It will be American, not because its scene is laid or its
characters born in the United States, but because its burden will be
reaction against old tyrannies and exposure of new hypocrisies; a
refutation of respectable falsehoods, and a proclamation of
unsophisticated truths. Indeed, let us take heed and diligently improve
our native talent, lest a day come when the Great American Novel make its
appearance, but written in a foreign language, and by some author who--
however purely American at heart--never set foot on the shores of the
Republic.


Julian Hawthorne

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