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- Definitions - 10/38 -


of the old half-truths. Among the most enduring of prejudices is the fallacy of the good old times. Upon that formula nine-tenths of the successful historical romances are built. That American wives suffer from foreign husbands, that capital is ruthless, that youth is right and age wrong, that energy wins over intellect, that virtue is always rewarded, are American conceptions of some endurance that have given short but lofty flights to thousands of native stories.

More important, however, in the history of fiction are those wide and slow moving currents of opinion, for which prejudice is perhaps too narrow a name, which flow so imperceptibly through the minds of a generation or a whole century that there is little realization of their novelty. Such a slow-moving current was the humanitarianism which found such vigorous expression in Dickens, the belief in industrial democracy which is being picked up as a theme by novelist after novelist to-day, or the sense of the value of personality and human experience which so intensely characterizes the literature of the early Renaissance.

If a novel draws up into itself one of these ideas, filling it with emotion, it gains perhaps its greatest assurance of immediate popularity. If the idea is of vast social importance, this popularity may continue. But if it is born of immediate circumstance, like the hatred of slavery in "Uncle Tom's Cabin," or if it is still more transient, say, the novelty of a new invention, like the airplane or wireless, then the book grows stale with its theme. The like is true of a story that teaches a lesson a generation are willing to be taught--it lives as long as the lesson. What has become of Charles Kingsley's novels, of the apologues of Maria Edgeworth? "Main Street" is such a story; so was "Mr. Britling Sees It Through"; so probably "A Doll's House." Decay is already at their hearts. Only the student knows how many like tales that preached fierily a text for the times have died in the past. But I am writing of popularity not of permanence. In four popular novels out of five, even in those where the appeal to the instinctive emotions is dominant, suspect some prejudice of the times embodied and usually exploited. It is the most potent of lures for that ever increasing public which has partly trained intelligence as well as emotions.

Perhaps it is already clear that most popular novels combine many elements of popularity, although usually one is dominant. Among the stories, for instance, which I have mentioned most frequently, "Main Street" depends upon a popular idea, but makes use also of the revenge motive. It is not at all, as many hasty critics said, an appeal to curiosity. We know our Main Streets well enough already. And therefore in England, which also was not curious about Main Streets, and where the popular idea that Sinclair Lewis seized upon was not prevalent, the book has had only a moderate success. "If Winter Comes" combines the revenge motive with aspiration. Scott Fitzgerald's first novel made its strong appeal to curiosity. We had heard of the wild younger generation and were curious. His second book depends largely upon the craving for sex experience, in which it resembles Mr. Hergesheimer's "Cytherea," but also plays heavily upon the motive of escape, and upon sheer curiosity. "Miss Lulu Bett" was a story of revenge. Booth Tarkington's "Alice Adams"--to bring in a new title--is a good illustration of a story where for once a popular novelist slurred over the popular elements in order to concentrate upon a study of character. His book received tardy recognition but it disappointed his less critical admirers. Mr. White's "Andivius Hedulio" depends for its popularity upon curiosity and escape.

The popular story, then, the financially successful, the immediately notorious story, should appeal to the instinctive emotions and may be built upon popular prejudice. What is the moral for the writer? Is he to lay out the possible fields of emotion as a surveyor prepares for his blue print? By no means. Unless he follows his own instinct in the plan, or narrates because of his own excited thinking he will produce a thinly clad formula rather than a successful story. There is no moral for the writer, only some rays of light thrown upon the nature of his achievement. The way to accomplish popularity, if that is what you want, is to write for the people, and let formula, once it is understood, take care of itself. As an editor, wise in popularity, once said to me, "Oppenheim and the rest are popular because they think like the people not for them."

What is the moral of this discussion for the critical reader? A great one, for if he does not wish to be tricked constantly by his own emotions into supposing that what is timely is therefore fine, and what moves him is therefore great, he must distinguish between the elements of popularity and the essence of greatness. It is evident, I think, from the argument that every element of popularity described above may be made effective upon our weak human nature with only an approximation to truth. The craving for escape may be, and usually is, answered by sentimental romance, where every emotion, from patriotism to amorousness, is mawkish and unreal. Every craving may be played upon in the same fashion just because it is a craving, and the result be often more popular for the exaggeration. Also it is notorious that a prejudice--or a popular idea, if you prefer the term--which is seized upon for fiction, almost inevitably is strained beyond logic and beyond truth, so much so that in rapid years, like those of 1916 to 1920 which swept us into propaganda and out again, the emphatic falsity of a book's central thesis may be recognized before the first editions are exhausted. It would be interesting to run off, in the midst of a 1922 performance, some of the war films that stirred audiences of 1918. It will be interesting to reread some of the cheaper and more popular war stories that carried even you, O judicious reader, off your even balance not five years ago to-day!

We have always known, of course, that a novel can be highly popular without being truly excellent. Nevertheless, it is a valuable discipline to specify the reasons. And it is good discipline also in estimating the intrinsic value of a novel to eliminate as far as is possible the temporal and the accidental; and in particular the especial appeal it may have to your own private craving--for each of us has his soft spot where the pen can pierce. On the contrary, if the highly speculative business of guessing the probable circulation of a novel ever becomes yours, then you must doubly emphasize the importance of these very qualities; search for them, analyze them out of the narrative, equate them with the tendencies of the times, the new emotions stirring, the new interests, new thoughts abroad, and then pick best sellers in advance.

Yet in eliminating the accidental in the search for real excellence, it would be disastrous to eliminate all causes of popularity with it. That would be to assume that the good story cannot be popular, which is nonsense. The best books are nearly always popular, if not in a year, certainly in a decade or a century. Often they spread more slowly than less solid achievements for the same reason that dear things sell less rapidly than cheap. The best books cost more to read because they contain more, and to get much out the reader must always put much in. Nevertheless, the good novel will always contain one or more of the elements of popularity in great intensity. I make but one exception, and that for those creations of the sheer intellect, like the delicate analyses of Henry James, where the appeal is to the subtle mind, and the emotion aroused an intellectual emotion. Such novels are on the heights, but they are never at the summit of literary art. They are limited by the partiality of their appeal, just as they are exalted by the perfection of their accomplishment. They cannot be popular, and are not.

The "best seller" therefore may be great but does not need to be. It is usually a weak book, no matter how readable, because ordinarily it has only the elements of popularity to go on, and succeeds by their number and timeliness instead of by fineness and truth. A second-rate man can compound a best seller if his sense for the popular is first-rate. In his books the instinctive emotions are excited over a broad area, and arise rapidly to sink again. No better examples can be found than in the sword-and- buckler romance of our 'nineties which set us all for a while thinking feudal thoughts and talking shallow gallantry. Now it is dead, stone dead. Not even the movies can revive it. The emotions it aroused went flat over night. Much the same is true of books that trade in prejudice, like the white slave stories of a decade ago. For a moment we were stirred to the depths. We swallowed the concept whole and raged with a furious indigestion of horrible fact. And then it proved to be colic only.

With such a light ballast of prejudice or sentiment can the profitable ship popularity be kept upright for a little voyage, and this, prevailingly, is all her cargo. But the wise writer, if he is able, as Scott, and Dickens, and Clemens were able, freights her more deeply. As for the good reader, he will go below to investigate before the voyage commences; or, if in midcourse he likes not his carrier, take off in his mental airplane and seek another book.

II

ON THE AMERICAN TRADITION

THE AMERICAN TRADITION

I remember a talk in Dublin with an Irish writer whose English prose has adorned our period. It was 1918, and the eve of forced conscription, and his indignation with English policy was intense. "I will give up their language," he said, "all except Shakespeare. I will write only Gaelic." Unfortunately, he could read Gaelic much better than he could write it. In his heart, indeed, he knew how mad he would have been to give up the only literary tradition which, thanks to language, could be his own; and in a calmer mood since he has enriched that tradition with admirable translations from the Irish. He was suffering from a mild case of Anglomania.

Who is the real Anglomaniac in America? Not the now sufficiently discredited individual with a monocle and a pseudo-Oxford accent, who tries to be more English than the English. Not the more subtly dangerous American who refers his tastes, his enthusiasms, his culture, and the prestige of his compatriots to an English test before he dare assert them. The real Anglomaniac is the American who tries to be less English than his own American tradition. He is the man who is obsessed with the fear of "Anglo-Saxon domination."

How many Anglomaniacs by this definition are at large in America each reader may judge for himself. Personally, I find them extraordinarily numerous, and of so many varieties, from the mere borrower of opinions to the deeply convinced zealot, that it seems wiser to analyze Anglomania than to discuss the various types that possess it. And in this analysis let us exclude from the beginning


Definitions - 10/38

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