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List Of Contents | Contents of Modern Fiction, by Charles Dudley Warner
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story, real or so called, but there must be a story in everything.  The
stump-speaker holds his audience by well-worn stories; the preacher wakes
up his congregation by a graphic narrative; and the Sunday-school teacher
leads his children into all goodness by the entertaining path of romance;
we even had a President who governed the country nearly by anecdotes.
The result of this universal demand for fiction is necessarily an
enormous supply, and as everybody writes, without reference to gifts, the
product is mainly trash, and trash of a deleterious sort; for bad art in
literature is bad morals.  I am not sure but the so-called domestic, the
diluted, the "goody," namby-pamby, unrobust stories, which are so largely
read by school-girls, young ladies, and women, do more harm than the
"knowing," audacious, wicked ones,--also, it is reported, read by them,
and written largely by their own sex.  For minds enfeebled and relaxed by
stories lacking even intellectual fibre are in a poor condition to meet
the perils of life.  This is not the place for discussing the stories
written for the young and for the Sunday-school.  It seems impossible to
check the flow of them, now that so much capital is invested in this
industry; but I think that healthy public sentiment is beginning to
recognize the truth that the excessive reading of this class of
literature by the young is weakening to the mind, besides being a serious
hindrance to study and to attention to the literature that has substance.

In his account of the Romantic School in Germany, Heine says, "In the
breast of a nation's authors there always lies the image of its future,
and the critic who, with a knife of sufficient keenness, dissects a new
poet can easily prophesy, as from the entrails of a sacrificial animal,
what shape matters will assume in Germany."  Now if all the poets and
novelists of England and America today were cut up into little pieces
(and we might sacrifice a few for the sake of the experiment), there is
no inspecting augur who could divine therefrom our literary future.
The diverse indications would puzzle the most acute dissector.  Lost in
the variety, the multiplicity of minute details, the refinements of
analysis and introspection, he would miss any leading indications.  For
with all its variety, it seems to me that one characteristic of recent
fiction is its narrowness--narrowness of vision and of treatment.  It
deals with lives rather than with life.  Lacking ideality, it fails of
broad perception.  We are accustomed to think that with the advent of the
genuine novel of society, in the first part of this century, a great step
forward was taken in fiction.  And so there was.  If the artist did not
use a big canvas, he adopted a broad treatment.  But the tendency now is
to push analysis of individual peculiarities to an extreme, and to
substitute a study of traits for a representation of human life.

It scarcely need be said that it is not multitude of figures on a
literary canvas that secures breadth of treatment.  The novel may be
narrow, though it swarms with a hundred personages.  It may be as wide as
life, as high as imagination can lift itself; it may image to us a whole
social state, though it pats in motion no more persons than we made the
acquaintance of in one of the romances of Hawthorne.  Consider for a
moment how Thackeray produced his marvelous results.  We follow with him,
in one of his novels of society, the fortunes of a very few people.  They
are so vividly portrayed that we are convinced the author must have known
them in that great world with which he was so familiar; we should not be
surprised to meet any of them in the streets of London.  When we visit
the Charterhouse School, and see the old forms where the boys sat nearly
a century ago, we have in our minds Colonel Newcome as really as we have
Charles Lamb and Coleridge and De Quincey.  We are absorbed, as we read,
in the evolution of the characters of perhaps only half a dozen people;
and yet all the world, all great, roaring, struggling London, is in the
story, and Clive, and Philip, and Ethel, and Becky Sharpe, and Captain
Costigan are a part of life.  It is the flowery month of May; the scent
of the hawthorn is in the air, and the tender flush of the new spring
suffuses the Park, where the tide of fashion and pleasure and idleness
surges up and down-the sauntering throng, the splendid equipages, the
endless cavalcade in Rotten Row, in which Clive descries afar off the
white plume of his ladylove dancing on the waves of an unattainable
society; the club windows are all occupied; Parliament is in session,
with its nightly echoes of imperial politics; the thronged streets roar
with life from morn till nearly morn again; the drawing-rooms hum and
sparkle in the crush of a London season; as you walk the midnight
pavement, through the swinging doors of the cider-cellars comes the burst
of bacchanalian song.  Here is the world of the press and of letters;
here are institutions, an army, a navy, commerce, glimpses of great ships
going to and fro on distant seas, of India, of Australia.  This one book
is an epitome of English life, almost of the empire itself.  We are
conscious of all this, so much breadth and atmosphere has the artist
given his little history of half a dozen people in this struggling world.

But this background of a great city, of an empire, is not essential to
the breadth of treatment upon which we insist in fiction, to broad
characterization, to the play of imagination about common things which
transfigures them into the immortal beauty of artistic creations.  What a
simple idyl in itself is Goethe's "Hermann and Dorothea"!  It is the
creation of a few master-touches, using only common material.  Yet it has
in it the breadth of life itself, the depth and passion of all our human
struggle in the world-a little story with a vast horizon.

It is constantly said that the conditions in America are unfavorable to
the higher fiction; that our society is unformed, without centre, without
the definition of classes, which give the light and shade that Heine
speaks of in "Don Quixote"; that it lacks types and customs that can be
widely recognized and accepted as national and characteristic; that we
have no past; that we want both romantic and historic background; that we
are in a shifting, flowing, forming period which fiction cannot seize on;
that we are in diversity and confusion that baffle artistic treatment; in
short, that American life is too vast, varied, and crude for the purpose
of the novelist.

These excuses might be accepted as fully accounting for our failure--or
shall we say our delay? --if it were not for two or three of our literary
performances.  It is true that no novel has been written, and we dare say
no novel will be written, that is, or will be, an epitome of the manifold
diversities of American life, unless it be in the form of one of Walt
Whitman's catalogues.  But we are not without peculiar types; not without
characters, not without incidents, stories, heroisms, inequalities; not
without the charms of nature in infinite variety; and human nature is the
same here that it is in Spain, France, and England.  Out of these
materials Cooper wrote romances, narratives stamped with the distinct
characteristics of American life and scenery, that were and are eagerly
read by all civilized peoples, and which secured the universal verdict
which only breadth of treatment commands.  Out of these materials, also,
Hawthorne, child-endowed with a creative imagination, wove those
tragedies of interior life, those novels of our provincial New England,
which rank among the great masterpieces of the novelist's art.  The
master artist can idealize even our crude material, and make it serve.
These exceptions to a rule do not go to prove the general assertion of a
poverty of material for fiction here; the simple truth probably is that,
for reasons incident to the development of a new region of the earth,
creative genius has been turned in other directions than that of
fictitious literature.  Nor do I think that we need to take shelter
behind the wellworn and convenient observation, the truth of which stands
in much doubt, that literature is the final flower of a nation's
civilization.

However, this is somewhat a digression.  We are speaking of the tendency
of recent fiction, very much the same everywhere that novels are written,
which we have imperfectly sketched.  It is probably of no more use to
protest against it than it is to protest against the vulgar realism in
pictorial art, which holds ugliness and beauty in equal esteem; or
against aestheticism gone to seed in languid affectations; or against the
enthusiasm of a social life which wreaks its religion on the color of a
vestment, or sighs out its divine soul over an ancient pewter mug.  Most
of our fiction, in its extreme analysis, introspection and self-
consciousness, in its devotion to details, in its disregard of the ideal,
in its selection as well as in its treatment of nature, is simply of a
piece with a good deal else that passes for genuine art.  Much of it is
admirable in workmanship, and exhibits a cleverness in details and a
subtlety in the observation of traits which many great novels lack.  But
I should be sorry to think that the historian will judge our social life
by it, and I doubt not that most of us are ready for a more ideal, that
is to say, a more artistic, view of our performances in this bright and
pathetic world.







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