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- Definitions - 2/38 -


Good Heavens! Because some among us insist that the mystic rose of the emotions shall be painted a brighter pink than nature allows, are the rest to forego glamour? Or because, to view the matter differently, psychology has shown what happens in the brain when a man falls in love, and anthropology has traced marriage to a care for property rights, are we to suspect the idyllic in literature wherever we find it? Life is full of the idyllic; and no anthropologist will ever persuade the reasonably romantic youth that the sweet and chivalrous passion which leads him to mingle reverence with desire for the object of his affections, is nothing but an idealized property sense. Origins explain very little, after all. The bilious critics of sentiment in literature have not even honest science behind them.

I have no quarrel with traffickers in simple emotion--with such writers as James Lane Allen and James Whitcomb Riley, for example. But the average American is not content with such sentiment as theirs. He wishes a more intoxicating brew, he desires to be persuaded that, once you step beyond your own experience, feeling rules the world. He wishes--I judge by what he reads--to make sentiment at least ninety per cent efficient, even if a dream- America, superficially resemblant to the real, but far different in tone, must be created by the obedient writer in order to satisfy him. His sentiment has frequently to be sentimentalized before he will pay for it. And to this fault, which he shares with other modern races, he adds the other heinous sin of sentimentalism, the refusal to face the facts.

This sentimentalizing of reality is far more dangerous than the romantic sentimentalizing of the "squashy" variety. It is to be found in sex-stories which carefully observe decency of word and deed, where the conclusion is always in accord with conventional morality, yet whose characters are clearly immoral, indecent, and would so display themselves if the tale were truly told. It is to be found in stories of "big business" where trickery and rascality are made virtuous at the end by sentimental baptism. If I choose for the hero of my novel a director in an American trust; if I make him an accomplice in certain acts of ruthless economic tyranny; if I make it clear that at first he is merely subservient to a stronger will; and that the acts he approves are in complete disaccord with his private moral code--why then, if the facts should be dragged to the light, if he is made to realize the exact nature of his career, how can I end my story? It is evident that my hero possesses little insight and less firmness of character. He is not a hero; he is merely a tool. In, let us say, eight cases out of ten, his curve is already plotted. It leads downward--not necessarily along the villain's path, but toward moral insignificance.

And yet, I cannot end my story that way for Americans. There _must_ be a grand moral revolt. There must be resistance, triumph, and not only spiritual, but also financial recovery. And this, likewise, is sentimentality. Even Booth Tarkington, in his excellent "Turmoil," had to dodge the logical issue of his story; had to make his hero exchange a practical literary idealism for a very impractical, even though a commercial, utopianism, in order to emerge apparently successful at the end of the book. A story such as the Danish Nexo's "Pelle the Conqueror," where pathos and the idyllic, each intense, each beautiful, are made convincing by an undeviating truth to experience, would seem to be almost impossible of production just now in America.

It is not enough to rail at this false fiction. The chief duty of criticism is to explain. The best corrective of bad writing is a knowledge of why it is bad. We get the fiction we deserve, precisely as we get the government we deserve--or perhaps, in each case, a little better. Why are we sentimental? When that question is answered, it is easier to understand the defects and the virtues of American fiction. And the answer lies in the traditional American philosophy of life.

To say that the American is an idealist is to commit a thoroughgoing platitude. Like most platitudes, the statement is annoying because from one point of view it is indisputably just, while from another it does not seem to fit the facts. With regard to our tradition, it is indisputable. Of the immigrants who since the seventeenth century have been pouring into this continent a proportion large in number, larger still in influence, has been possessed of motives which in part at least were idealistic. If it was not the desire for religious freedom that urged them, it was the desire for personal freedom; if not political liberty, why then economic liberty (for this too is idealism), and the opportunity to raise the standard of life. And of course all these motives were strongest in that earlier immigration which has done most to fix the state of mind and body which we call being American. I need not labor the argument. Our political and social history support it; our best literature demonstrates it, for no men have been more idealistic than the American writers whom we have consented to call great. Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, Whitman--was idealism ever more thoroughly incarnate than in them?

And this idealism--to risk again a platitude--has been in the air of America. It has permeated our religious sects, and created several of them. It has given tone to our thinking, and even more to our feeling. I do not say that it has always, or even usually, determined our actions, although the Civil War is proof of its power. Again and again it has gone aground roughly when the ideal met a condition of living--a fact that will provide the explanation for which I seek. But optimism, "boosting," muck- raking (not all of its manifestations are pretty), social service, religious, municipal, democratic reform, indeed the "uplift" generally, is evidence of the vigor, the bumptiousness of the inherited American tendency to pursue the ideal. No one can doubt that in 1918 we believed, at least, in idealism. Nevertheless, so far as the average individual is concerned, with just his share and no more of the race-tendency, this idealism has been suppressed, and in some measure perverted. It is this which explains, I think, American sentimentalism.

Consider, for example, the ethics of conventional American society. The American ethical tradition is perfectly definite and tremendously powerful. It belongs, furthermore, to a population far larger than the "old American" stock, for it has been laboriously inculcated in our schools and churches, and impressively driven home by newspaper, magazine, and book. I shall not presume to analyze it save where it touches literature. There it maintains a definite attitude toward all sex-problems: the Victorian, which is not necessarily, or even probably, a bad one. Man should be chaste, and proud of his chastity. Woman must be so. It is the ethical duty of the American to hate, or at least to despise, all deviations, and to pretend--for the greater prestige of the law--that such sinning is exceptional, at least in America. And this is the public morality he believes in, whatever may be his private experience in actual living. In business, it is the ethical tradition of the American, inherited from a rigorous Protestant morality, to be square, to play the game without trickery, to fight hard but never meanly. Over-reaching is justifiable when the other fellow has equal opportunities to be "smart"; lying, tyranny--never. And though the opposites of all these laudable practices come to pass, he must frown on them in public, deny their rightness even to the last cock-crow-- especially in the public press.

American political history is a long record of idealistic tendencies toward democracy working painfully through a net of graft, pettiness, sectionalism, and bravado, with constant disappointment for the idealist who believes, traditionally, in the intelligence of the crowd. American social history is a glaring instance of how the theory of equal dignity for all men can entangle itself with caste distinctions, snobbery, and the power of wealth. American economic history betrays the pioneer helping to kick down the ladder which he himself had raised toward equal opportunity for all. American literary history--especially contemporary literary history--reflects the result of all this for the American mind. The sentimental in our literature is a direct consequence.

The disease is easily acquired. Mr. Smith, a broker, finds himself in an environment of "schemes" and "deals" in which the quality of mercy is strained, and the wind is decidedly not tempered to the shorn lamb. After all, business is business. He shrugs his shoulders and takes his part. But his unexpended fund of native idealism--if, as is most probable, he has his share--seeks its due satisfaction. He cannot use it in business; so he takes it out in a novel or a play where, quite contrary to his observed experience, ordinary people like himself act nobly, with a success that is all the more agreeable for being unexpected. His wife, a woman with strange stirrings about her heart, with motions toward beauty, and desires for a significant life and rich, satisfying experience, exists in day-long pettiness, gossips, frivols, scolds, with money enough to do what she pleases, and nothing vital to do. She also relieves her pent-up idealism in plays or books--in high-wrought, "strong" novels, not in adventures in society such as the kitchen admires, but in stories with violent moral and emotional crises, whose characters, no matter how unlifelike, have "strong" thoughts, and make vital decisions; succeed or fail significantly. Her brother, the head of a wholesale dry-goods firm, listens to the stories the drummers bring home of night life on the road, laughs, says to himself regretfully that the world has to be like that; and then, in logical reaction, demands purity and nothing but aggressive purity in the books of the public library.

The hard man goes in for philanthropy (never before so frequently as in America); the one-time "boss" takes to picture-collecting; the railroad wrecker gathers rare editions of the Bible; and tens of thousands of humbler Americans carry their inherited idealism into the necessarily sordid experiences of life in an imperfectly organized country, suppress it for fear of being thought "cranky" or "soft," and then, in their imagination and all that feeds their imagination, give it vent. You may watch the process any evening at the "movies" or the melodrama, on the trolley-car or in the easy chair at home.

This philosophy of living which I have called American idealism is in its own nature sound, as is proved in a hundred directions where it has had full play. Suppressed idealism, like any other suppressed desire, becomes unsound. And here lies the ultimate cause of the taste for sentimentalism in the American _bourgeoisie._ An undue insistence upon happy endings, regardless of the premises of the story, and a craving for optimism everywhere, anyhow, are sure signs of a "morbid complex," and to be compared with some justice to the craving for drugs in an alcoholic deprived of liquor. No one can doubt the effect of the suppression by the Puritan discipline of that instinctive love of pleasure and liberal experience common to us all. Its unhealthy reaction is visible in every old American community. No one who faces the facts can deny the result of the suppression by commercial, bourgeois, prosperous America of our native idealism. The student of society may find its dire effects in politics, in religion, and in social intercourse. The critic cannot overlook them in literature; for it is in the realm of the imagination that


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