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Modern Fiction

By Charles Dudley Warner

One of the worst characteristics of modern fiction is its so-called truth
to nature.  For fiction is an art, as painting is, as sculpture is, as
acting is.  A photograph of a natural object is not art; nor is the
plaster cast of a man's face, nor is the bare setting on the stage of an
actual occurrence.  Art requires an idealization of nature.  The amateur,
though she may be a lady, who attempts to represent upon the stage the
lady of the drawing-room, usually fails to convey to the spectators the
impression of a lady.  She lacks the art by which the trained actress,
who may not be a lady, succeeds.  The actual transfer to the stage of the
drawing-room and its occupants, with the behavior common in well-bred
society, would no doubt fail of the intended dramatic effect, and the
spectators would declare the representation unnatural.

However our jargon of criticism may confound terms, we do not need to be
reminded that art and nature are distinct; that art, though dependent on
nature, is a separate creation; that art is selection and idealization,
with a view to impressing the mind with human, or even higher than human,
sentiments and ideas.  We may not agree whether the perfect man and woman
ever existed, but we do know that the highest representations of them in
form--that in the old Greek sculptures--were the result of artistic
selection of parts of many living figures.

When we praise our recent fiction for its photographic fidelity to nature
we condemn it, for we deny to it the art which would give it value.
We forget that the creation of the novel should be, to a certain extent,
a synthetic process, and impart to human actions that ideal quality which
we demand in painting.  Heine regards Cervantes as the originator of the
modern novel.  The older novels sprang from the poetry of the Middle
Ages; their themes were knightly adventure, their personages were the
nobility; the common people did not figure in them.  These romances,
which had degenerated into absurdities, Cervantes overthrew by "Don
Quixote."  But in putting an end to the old romances he created a new
school of fiction, called the modern novel, by introducing into his
romance of pseudo-knighthood a faithful description of the lower classes,
and intermingling the phases of popular life.  But he had no one-sided
tendency to portray the vulgar only; he brought together the higher and
the lower in society, to serve as light and shade, and the aristocratic
element was as prominent as the popular.  This noble and chivalrous
element disappears in the novels of the English who imitated Cervantes.
"These English novelists since Richardson's reign," says Heine, "are
prosaic natures; to the prudish spirit of their time even pithy
descriptions of the life of the common people are repugnant, and we see
on yonder side of the Channel those bourgeoisie novels arise, wherein the
petty humdrum life of the middle classes is depicted."  But Scott
appeared, and effected a restoration of the balance in fiction.  As
Cervantes had introduced the democratic element into romances, so Scott
replaced the aristocratic element, when it had disappeared, and only a
prosaic, bourgeoisie fiction existed.  He restored to romances the
symmetry which we admire in "Don Quixote."  The characteristic feature of
Scott's historical romances, in the opinion of the great German critic,
is the harmony between the artistocratic and democratic elements.

This is true, but is it the last analysis of the subject?  Is it a
sufficient account of the genius of Cervantes and Scott that they
combined in their romances a representation of the higher and lower
classes?  Is it not of more importance how they represented them?  It is
only a part of the achievement of Cervantes that he introduced the common
people into fiction; it is his higher glory that he idealized his
material; and it is Scott's distinction also that he elevated into
artistic creations both nobility and commonalty.  In short, the essential
of fiction is not diversity of social life, but artistic treatment of
whatever is depicted.  The novel may deal wholly with an aristocracy,
or wholly with another class, but it must idealize the nature it touches
into art.  The fault of the bourgeoisie novels, of which Heine complains,
is not that they treated of one class only, and excluded a higher social
range, but that they treated it without art and without ideality.  In
nature there is nothing vulgar to the poet, and in human life there is
nothing uninteresting to the artist; but nature and human life, for the
purposes of fiction, need a creative genius.  The importation into the
novel of the vulgar, sordid, and ignoble in life is always unbearable,
unless genius first fuses the raw material in its alembic.

When, therefore, we say that one of the worst characteristics of modern
fiction is its so-called truth to nature, we mean that it disregards the
higher laws of art, and attempts to give us unidealized pictures of life.
The failure is not that vulgar themes are treated, but that the treatment
is vulgar; not that common life is treated, but that the treatment is
common; not that care is taken with details, but that no selection is
made, and everything is photographed regardless of its artistic value.
I am sure that no one ever felt any repugnance on being introduced by
Cervantes to the muleteers, contrabandistas, servants and serving-maids,
and idle vagabonds of Spain, any more than to an acquaintance with the
beggar-boys and street gamins on the canvases of Murillo.  And I believe
that the philosophic reason of the disgust of Heine and of every critic
with the English bourgeoisie novels, describing the petty, humdrum life
of the middle classes, was simply the want of art in the writers; the
failure on their part to see that a literal transcript of nature is poor
stuff in literature.  We do not need to go back to Richardson's time for
illustrations of that truth.  Every week the English press--which is even
a greater sinner in this respect than the American--turns out a score of
novels which are mediocre, not from their subjects, but from their utter
lack of the artistic quality.  It matters not whether they treat of
middle-class life, of low, slum life, or of drawing-room life and lords
and ladies; they are equally flat and dreary.  Perhaps the most inane
thing ever put forth in the name of literature is the so-called domestic
novel, an indigestible, culinary sort of product, that might be named the
doughnut of fiction.  The usual apology for it is that it depicts family
life with fidelity.  Its characters are supposed to act and talk as
people act and talk at home and in society.  I trust this is a libel,
but, for the sake of the argument, suppose they do.  Was ever produced so
insipid a result?  They are called moral; in the higher sense they are
immoral, for they tend to lower the moral tone and stamina of every
reader.  It needs genius to import into literature ordinary conversation,
petty domestic details, and the commonplace and vulgar phases of life.
A report of ordinary talk, which appears as dialogue in domestic novels,
may be true to nature; if it is, it is not worth writing or worth
reading.  I cannot see that it serves any good purpose whatever.
Fortunately, we have in our day illustrations of a different treatment of
the vulgar.  I do not know any more truly realistic pictures of certain
aspects of New England life than are to be found in Judd's "Margaret,"
wherein are depicted exceedingly pinched and ignoble social conditions.
Yet the characters and the life are drawn with the artistic purity of
Flaxman's illustrations of Homer.  Another example is Thomas Hardy's "Far
from the Madding Crowd."  Every character in it is of the lower class in
England.  But what an exquisite creation it is!  You have to turn back to
Shakespeare for any talk of peasants and clowns and shepherds to compare
with the conversations in this novel, so racy are they of the soil, and
yet so touched with the finest art, the enduring art.  Here is not the
realism of the photograph, but of the artist; that is to say, it is
nature idealized.

When we criticise our recent fiction it is obvious that we ought to
remember that it only conforms to the tendencies of our social life, our
prevailing ethics, and to the art conditions of our time.  Literature is
never in any age an isolated product.  It is closely related to the
development or retrogression of the time in all departments of life.
The literary production of our day seems, and no doubt is, more various
than that of any other, and it is not easy to fix upon its leading
tendency.  It is claimed for its fiction, however, that it is analytic
and realistic, and that much of it has certain other qualities that make
it a new school in art.  These aspects of it I wish to consider in this

It is scarcely possible to touch upon our recent fiction, any more than
upon our recent poetry, without taking into account what is called the
Esthetic movement--a movement more prominent in England than elsewhere.
A slight contemplation of this reveals its resemblance to the Romantic
movement in Germany, of which the brothers Schlegel were apostles, in the
latter part of the last century.  The movements are alike in this: that
they both sought inspiration in mediaevalism, in feudalism, in the
symbols of a Christianity that ran to mysticism, in the quaint, strictly
pre-Raphael art which was supposed to be the result of a simple faith.
In the one case, the artless and childlike remains of old German pictures
and statuary were exhumed and set up as worthy of imitation; in the
other, we have carried out in art, in costume, and in domestic life,
so far as possible, what has been wittily and accurately described as
"stained-glass attitudes."  With all its peculiar vagaries, the English
school is essentially a copy of the German, in its return to
mediaevalism.  The two movements have a further likeness, in that they
are found accompanied by a highly symbolized religious revival.  English

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