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- Definitions - 6/38 -


alike impose upon the editor. I would not have the American editor less practical, less sensitive to the popular wave; I would have him more so. But I would have him less dogmatic. All forms of dogmatism are dangerous for men whose business it is to publish, not to criticize, contemporary literature. But an unsound and arbitrary dogmatism is the worst. If the editor is to give the people what they want instead of what they have wanted, he must have more confidence in himself, and more belief in their capacity for liking the good. He should be dogmatic only where he can be sure. Elsewhere let him follow the method of science, and experiment. He should trust to his taste in practice as well as in private theory, and let the results of such criticism sometimes, at least, dominate his choice.

In both our "popular" and our "literary" magazines, freer fiction would follow upon better criticism. The readers of the "literary" magazines are already seeking foreign-made narratives, and neglecting the American short story built for them according to the standardized model. The readers of the "popular" magazines want chiefly journalism (an utterly different thing from literature); and that they are getting in good measure in the non- fiction and part-fiction sections of the magazines. But they also seek, as all men seek, some literature. If, instead of imposing the "formula" (which is, after all, a journalistic mechanism--and a good one--adapted for speedy and evanescent effects), if, instead of imposing the "formula" upon all the subjects they propose to have turned into fiction, the editors of these magazines should also experiment, should release some subjects from the tyranny of the "formula," and admit others which its cult has kept out, the result might be surprising. It is true that the masses have no taste for literature,--as a steady diet; it is still more certain that not even the most mediocre of multitudes can be permanently hoodwinked by formula.

But the magazines can take care of themselves; it is the short story in which I am chiefly interested. Better criticism and greater freedom for fiction might vitalize our overabundant, unoriginal, unreal, unversatile,--everything but unformed short story. Its artifice might again become art. Even the more careful, the more artistic work leaves one with the impression that these stories have sought a "line," and found an acceptable formula. And when one thinks of the multitudinous situations, impressions, incidents in this fascinating whirl of modern life, incapable perhaps of presentation in a novel because of their very impermanence, admirably adapted to the short story because of their vividness and their deep if narrow significance, the voice of protest must go up against any artificial, arbitrary limitations upon the art. Freedom to make his appeal to the public with any subject not morbid or indecent, is all the writer can ask. Freedom to publish sometimes what the editor likes and the public may like, instead of what the editor approves because the public has liked it, is all that he needs. There is plenty of blood in the American short story yet, though I have read through whole magazines without finding a drop of it.

When we give literature in America the same opportunity to invent, to experiment, that we have already given journalism, there will be more legitimate successors to Irving, to Hawthorne, to Poe and Bret Harte. There will be more writers, like O. Henry, who write stories to please themselves, and thus please the majority. There will be fewer writers, like O. Henry, who stop short of the final touch of perfection because American taste (and the American editor) puts no premium upon artistic work. There will be fewer stories, I trust, where sentiment is no longer a part, but the whole of life. Most of all, form, _the_ form, the _formula,_ will relax its grip upon the short story, will cease its endless tapping upon the door of interest, and its smug content when some underling (while the brain sleeps) answers its stereotyped appeal. And we may get more narratives like Mrs. Wharton's "Ethan Frome," to make us feel that now as much as ever there is literary genius waiting in America.

A CERTAIN CONDESCENSION TOWARD FICTION

If only the reader of novels would say what he thinks about fiction! If only the dead hand of hereditary opinion did not grasp and distort what he feels! But he exercises a judgment that is not independent. Books, like persons, he estimates as much by the traditional reputation of the families they happen to be born in as by the merits they may themselves possess, and the traditional reputation of the novel in English has been bad.

Poetry has a most respectable tradition. Even now, when the realistic capering of free verse has emboldened the ordinary man to speak his mind freely, a reviewer hesitates to apply even to bad poetry so undignified a word as trash. The essay family is equally respectable, to be noticed, when noticed at all, with some of the reverence due to an ancient and dignified art. The sermon family, still numerous to a degree incredible to those who do not study the lists of new books, is so eminently respectable that few dare to abuse even its most futile members. But the novel was given a bad name in its youth that has overshadowed its successful maturity.

Our ancestors are much to blame. For centuries they held the novel suspect as a kind of bastard literature, probably immoral, and certainly dangerous to intellectual health. But they are no more deeply responsible for our suppressed contempt of fiction than weak-kneed novelists who for many generations have striven to persuade the English reader that a good story was really a sermon, or a lecture on ethics, or a tract on economics or moral psychology, in disguise. Bernard Shaw, in his prefaces to the fiction that he succeeds in making dramatic, is carrying on a tradition that Chaucer practised before him:

And ye that holden this tale a folye,-- As of a fox, or of a cok and hen,-- Taketh the moralite, good men.

And that was the way they went at it for centuries, always pretending, always driven to pretend, that a good story was not good enough to be worth telling for itself alone, but must convey a moral or a satire or an awful lesson, or anything that might separate it from the "just fiction" that only the immoral and the frivolous among their contemporaries read or wrote. Today we pay the price.

William Painter, her Majesty Queen Elizabeth's clerk of ordnance in the Tower, is an excellent instance. Stricken by a moral panic, he advertised that from his delectable "Palace of Pleasure" the young might "learne how to avoyde the ruine, overthrow, inconvenience and displeasure, that lascivious desire and wanton evil doth bring to their suters and pursuers"--a disingenuous sop to the Puritans. His contemporary,

Geoffrey Fenton, who also turned to story-making, opines that in histories "the dignitye of vertue and fowelenes of vice appereth muche more lyvelye then in any morall teachynge," although he knew that his "histories" were the sheerest, if not the purest, of fiction, with any moral purpose that might exist chiefly of his own creating. A century and more later Eliza Haywood, the ambiguous author of many ambiguous novels of the eighteenth century, prefaces her "Life's Progress Through the Passions" (an ambiguous title) with like hypocrisy: "I am enemy to all romances, novels, and whatever carries the air of them. . . . It is a _real_, not a _fictitious_ character I am about to present"--which is merely another instance of fiction disguising itself, this time, I regret to say, as immorality in real life. And so they all go, forever implying that fiction is frivolous or immoral or worthless, until it is not surprising that, as Mr. Bradsher has reminded us, the elder Timothy Dwight of Yale College was able to assert, "Between the Bible and novels there is a gulf fixed which few novel-readers are willing to pass." Richardson was forced to defend himself, so was Sterne, so was Fielding, so was Goldsmith. Dr. Johnson was evidently making concessions when he advised romances as reading for youth. Jeffrey, the critic and tyrant of the next century, summed it all up when he wrote that novels are "generally regarded as among the lower productions of our literature." And this is the reputation that the novel family has brought with it even down to our day.

The nineteenth century was worse, if anything, than earlier periods, for it furthered what might be called the evangelistic slant toward novel-reading, the attitude that neatly classified this form of self-indulgence with dancing, card-playing, hard drinking, and loose living of every description. It is true that the intellectuals and worldly folk in general did not share this prejudice. Walter Scott had made novel-reading common among the well-read; but the narrower sectarians in England, the people of the back country and the small towns in America, learned to regard the novel as unprofitable, if not positively leading toward ungodliness, and their unnumbered descendants make up the vast army of uncritical readers for which Grub Street strives and sweats to-day. They no longer abstain and condemn; instead, they patronize and distrust.

All this--and far more, for I have merely sketched in a long and painful history--is the background seldom remembered when we wonder at the easy condescension of the American toward his innumerable novels.

The fact of his condescension is not so well recognized as it deserves to be. Indeed, condescension may not seem to be an appropriate term for the passionate devouring of romance that one can see going on any day in the trolley-cars, or the tense seriousness with which some readers regard certain novelists whose pages have a message for the world. True, the term will not stretch thus far. But it is condescension that has made the trouble, as I shall try to prove; for all of us, even the tense ones, do patronize that creative instinct playing upon life as it is which in all times and everywhere is the very essence of fiction.

How absurd that here in America we should condescend toward our fiction! How ridiculous in a country even yet so weak and poor and crude in the arts, which has contributed so little to the world's store of all that makes fine living for the mind! What a laughable parallel of the cock and the gem he found and left upon the dung- heap, if we could be proved not to be proud of American fiction! For if the novel and the short story should be left out of America's slender contribution to world literature, the offering would be a small one. Some poetry of Whitman's and of Poe's, some essays of Emerson, a little Thoreau, and what important besides? Hawthorne would be left from the count, the best exemplar of the fine art of moral narrative in any language; Henry James would be left out, the master of them all in psychological character analysis; Poe the story-teller would be missing, and the art of the modern short story, which in English sterns from him; Cooper


Definitions - 6/38

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