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The Changing Novel

ISSUE:  Winter 1934

Suppose you were asked to select a representative English or American novel of the past lustrum, what could you answer? The catch is in the word “representative.” Different as they were, Scott or Jane Austen is a representative English novelist of the first quarter of the last century. Dickens or Thackeray, Meredith or Hardy I can each stand for his decade. In general there was some-thing about their novels that would be representative of any important British novelist of the same period. At the close of the nineteenth century the “well-made novel” had reached a seeming perfection of technique and form at the hands of Hardy and James and Stevenson. But a perfect apple must rot that a new tree grow from its seed and the new tree may revert to something that bears a very different fruit from the fragrant red sphere that enclosed the seed. Huxley said, “The nemesis of all reformers is finality,” and destruction comes, too, to any form that spheres itself out into the ultimate fruit of a successive development. In the twentieth century the form of the English novel suddenly went to smash.

No single publishing season in America has illustrated the diversity of aim and method and form in the current novel better than the autumn of nineteen twenty-seven. Among the successes of that season were Thornton Wilder’s poetic “Bridge of San Luis Rey,” Willa Cather’s blending of romance with representative realism, “Death Comes for the Archbishop,” Julian Green’s powerful and gloomy “Avarice House,” James Branch Cabell’s ironic “Something About Eve,” John Erskine’s amusing banter, “Adam and Eve,” Robert Nathan’s fantastic “Woodcutter’s House,” and Virginia Woolf’s deft capture of human consciousness in a silken web, “To the Lighthouse.” William Faulkner’s nauseatingly effective novel of human parasites, “Mosquitoes,” was banned in Boston that year, too, and there were such more or less popular successes as Rosamond Lehmann’s “Dusty Answer,” in which fine words are used to portray abnormal human relations, and C. E. Montague’s pacifist tract, “Right off the Map.” Here are realistic novels as poetic in method as romances and romances as caustic in spirit as the starkest realism. Cabell’s irony bites maliciously, Wilder’s poetry has the tartness of a quince, Nathan’s phantasy plays with a cynical philosophy and ends with a broken love-troth. There is nothing in common in the works of all important novelists today. H. G. Wells and Walter de la Mare, Sinclair Lewis and Ernest Hemingway, Cabell and Dreiser, Sherwood Anderson and Joseph Hergesheimer, Ellen Glasgow and Willa Cather, William Faulkner and John Dos Passos, Thornton Wilder and Julian Green, Galsworthy and Joyce: they have no one thing common to them all, not even the grammar—since Joyce’s “Work in Progress” not even the words—of the English language. Psycho-analysis, poetic phantasy, introspective subtleties, ironic fable, realistic characterization and vivid story-telling, all these things come to the publishers’ desk as novels. Were there one kind of novel at a time, the Lindbergh in the sky and the rest nowhere, the publishers could back that kind of novel and sleep comfortably with dreams of apple sauce and roast turkey all the year round. But they must buy as they guess and go out and make a market for their guesses. All these symptoms only go to show how vital a form of literature the modern novel is; it is no longer a literary form but just that, a form of literature—almost a compendium of all literature. There is scarcely an aim, a mood, or a method to which it may not give expression. It can be as intellectual as Emerson, as epigrammatic as Chesterton, as rapid and exciting as Dumas.

It can find its material in the Garden of Eden and the poetry of Homer, or the history of Macaulay, or the philosophy of Hegel, or the science of Lamarck, or the psychological allegory of Freud and Adler. There is no longer anything necessarily in common between one novel and another except that they are both written in prose and present characters.

“Ah, but what you have said only shows how our novelists have run amuck,” says a critic. “The novel began as a storyteller’s art and a novel ceases to be a good novel when it ceases first of all to tell a good story.” The objection is not necessarily valid even if it be true, but is it? The germ of anything is apt to have the potentialities of all its later developments, and the novel is no exception to prove the rule. It is enough to remember that a multitude of earlier forms contributed to the evolution of the earliest amorphous novel. Early fables, naughty Italian tales of the monasteries—those old novelle—verse romances of love and adventure and their prose translations, collections of letters, real and fabricated, lives and autobiographies, character sketches and dialogues, moral prose allegories and political tracts cast in narrative form; out of all these things the self-conscious novel developed. And once sure of itself as an independent form of expression, it immediately adapted itself to the moulding aims of a series of widely divergent masters. For Defoe, amusement and a zest for discovery were enough to make “Robinson Crusoe” immortal. John Bunyan almost invented the first novel when he preached by the narrative method in “Pilgrim’s Progress.” Swift used fiction for ironic satire in “Gulliver’s Travels.” Samuel Richardson actually blundered upon the completely organized novel when he undertook to teach his generation perfect behavior in morals and manners. Laurence Sterne set his whimsical fancy loose to play intellectually with three or four characters and a few ideas, and surprised himself by writing a masterpiece; and Henry Fielding, enamoured of life itself, seized upon the new method to give with gusto a picture of human character and behavior as he saw it, and the result was “Tom Jones,” the first great example of English realism since Chaucer. What has become of our critic’s theory that the English novel began as pure story-telling—unless “Robinson Crusoe” is the one advance swallow that drew the line of flight for all the birds of summer? Walter Scott is nearest the pure story-teller of all the major English novelists. And even Scott gave to his amusement the justifications of easy history and travel readings.

The truth remains that though the English novel sent its imagination upon bewildering adventures, its conscience kept to a straight highway. It told a marching tale, constructed in good Aristotelian tradition with a beginning, a middle, and an end. It found its chief interests in the doings of normal human character and incident. It accepted the artistic philosophy of a God of sugar plums and sweetmeats—the phrase is appropriately half Anthony Trollope’s —who presided at the close of all novels, so that even the tragic ending was ameliorated by poetic justice. And especially it accepted the conventional code of conduct and morality. Beautiful paradox: Voltaire admired English poetry for the energy and depth with which it treated moral ideas. Had he lived a century later he might have admired, for the same reason, the novel. Not even a Voltaire could admire the moral ideas of the composite English novel today.

How did the disintegration of the novel come about? I should say it has merely grown up. In that Garden of Eden of the early novel everything was fresh and simple and natural ; but even its Adam, whether we call him Bunyan, Defoe, or Richardson, knew the price of apples. Then the knowledge of good and evil came in and a big corner of the garden was fenced off for a commercial apple orchard. And, moreover, strange concoctions were made from the fruits of the orchard that even the mother tree would not recognize. The change in the novel began to appear about the beginning of the twentieth century, but there were influences reaching back to the ‘seventies when Samuel Butler like a Devil’s advocate began “The Way of All Flesh,” which was not published till after the new century broke. Then the English novel sent its mind to school more daringly to modern science, the new psychology, and the Continental novel. Its soul became as adventurous as its imagination and jumped off the straight road to break new paths over wild ground and to pry into every odd corner in Heaven and Hell.

Chesterton sparkled an epigram in his life of Browning to the effect that every man, like the race, first discovers the universe, then humanity, and at last himself. The novel has repeated the experience of the race. It was first objective and incidental, then social and philosophical, and later psychological and introspective. Scott’s heroes adventured into France and the Holy Land; George Eliot’s, whether in Florence or England, worked out a philosophy of human conduct as it affected types and groups of men. The Odyssey of Mr. de la Mare’s Miss M, the Midget, or of Mr. Joyce’s Stephen in “Ulysses,” is within the individual mind.

Wherever there has been an evolutionary process, there survive forms of all stages of the evolutionary development. So in the mutations of an expressional norm like the novel, there will remain all the earlier types and their influences. As in the most civilized society of men there are cave men and medievalists garbed in the fashions of the year, so in the novel of the year there will be survivals of every manner and method known to the novel’s history. The present is always an epitome of the past.

The shift from the objective, matter-of-fact, and conventional to the subjective, subtle, and experimental has not been confined to the novel, by any means, nor is it entirely explained by historical influences. There have been two types of experience, two kinds of mind at work. One sees life subjectively, in terms of experience; the other, objectively, in terms of observation. Call them introvert and extravert, if you will, but there were Plato and Aristotle before Jung. Always there has been the division of the pastoral sheep on the sunny hillside from the goat-satyrs of the wildwood; the followers of fact and convention from the pursuers of the phantoms of freedom. Perhaps the division started in a metaphorical garden when Eve objectively ate the apple and left Adam philosophically to spit out the seed. She took the fruit, he made up the tales about it. There are, in short, always those who are interested in finding the facts and those who prefer to build something out of the facts. From the beginning the novel tended either to present facts or to interpret them, to be objectively compact of incidents or subjectively transfused by imaginative coloring. The objective method was more akin to the scientific mind and the subjective method to the poetic mind; and very soon the distinctions of realism and romance began to be phrased in terms of subject material and of spirit or aim. No better distinction between the two has been made than that of Hawthorne in his preface to “The House of the Seven Gables.” The novel of incident, he thought, must be true to objective fact. The romance is free to represent objective fact to suit the author’s imagination, but is no less than the other bound to be true to the principles of the human heart. But however the romanticists have phrased their conceptions, the division between realism and romance has always been the main one in the novel and it has represented the antithesis between the objective mind and the subjective mind, the scientific attitude and the poetic attitude, the extravert and the introvert; but nearly always there was a blending of the two. The simon pure article was unknown: and naturally, for life is never simon pure. And art, though it may make clear distinctions and nice choices, has a way when it is most real and closest to life of getting so entangled in the mesh of life that its distinctions too become less clear-cut and take on the complexities of life. Robert Louis Stevenson felt but did not express completely the distinguishing traits of Romance. It is no less a matter of spirit than of material, nor of material than of method. The scientific method is the collecting of details of fact and the presenting of them in the cold spirit of logical investigation: and that is fundamentally the case with realism. But Romance selects its materials in a certain mood, and shapes, colors and arranges them to achieve a pre-im-agined effect. The artist controls his medium; that has always been true of the highest art. Realism is the scientific method and spirit at work through the novel, and Romanticism is the artistic method and spirit. It was natural that as the scientific thought of the nineteenth century became more and more pervading, realism grew more and more grubby. Even Dickens, the most inventive literary genius of his century, a sentimentalist by training and a romanticist by nature, became frankly more realistic in the aim of each of his later novels; and Thomas Hardy, a melodramatic poet in feeling, with a strong tincture of sentimentalism, worked with the realistic method, though in the very control which his imagination kept over his structure and material he showed himself by inheritance a romantic. So there came about a greater and greater confusion of the characteristics of realism and romance in the novel. Introverts were writing in the objective tradition and extraverts were influenced by their powerful examples to use the introspective and artistic patterns, which the others had evolved, as a compromise between their nature and their convictions, and so themselves became hybrids in their work, with all the resulting combinations of romantic method, material, and spirit. Realism of such a modified sort was in the saddle before George Moore’s “A Modern Lover” and Butler’s “The Way of All Flesh” began in England a period of franker realism, sometimes called naturalism. Naturalism brought the harsher reign of the scientific method in. Then only the wildest extravagances could get a public hearing for romance from the serious minded, and chiefly in the guise of fantastic prophecies like those of H. G. Wells. Lovely poetic romances like Hudson’s “Green Mansions” and “The Purple Land,” de la Mare’s earlier prose works, and even Conrad’s romantic masterpieces had to await a later recognition. At the beginning of the century a revival of romance in a spiritualized form by these men and others like Anthur Machen and Algernon Blackwood remained almost without appreciative notice and utterly without popular favor.

Early in this century the decentralization of authority in type and form began. The English novel let its imagination go on more and more bewildering escapades, and neither its conscience nor its intellect kept at all any longer to the straight road. Every tradition of style and manners and morals was challenged. Every convention of form was stampeded. Romance came back into favor, but realism remained as vigorous as before. The spirit of the times was partly responsible and the influence of the other arts, but chiefly the catholicity of taste and experiment was the result of Continental influence. The masters to whom writers looked now were rarely Scott and Dickens and Thackeray, but the Russian, German, Austrian, and French novelists; with the new science and especially the psychologists, Freud and Adler, suggesting not only ideas but even methods of treatment. And this situation gives the answer to one question of why, though the public consumes more novels than it ever did before, it finds so little that satisfies its taste. There is no longer any uniformity about what the novelist attempts. One buyer seeks something pleasant and sweet and he is given a dose of physic, one wishes something solid and sustaining and he gets a bon-bon, still another has need of medicine and he is surfeited with beefsteak. To change the way of putting it, two novels today may be as different in kind as a poem of Tennyson is from an essay on psychology by William James or a treatise by Malthus on population. In this respect, reviewers are no wiser than buyers; and here is painted the picture of American criticism today.

There are few important writers among the younger novelists who have not completely broken with the traditional methods of the older English novel. Some of the ablest of the established authors in both England and America do use a modification of the older complication-plot novel of the straight-on-to-the-end story. Their subject matter and their philosophy, on the other hand, may be as radical as the youngest newcomer on the left. John Galsworthy, Arnold Bennett usually, H. G. Wells at times, Hugh Walpole, and lesser writers as unconventional as Warwick Deeping in “Sorrell and Son,” tell a dramatic story of character and plot such as has been used for the English novel from Jane Austen who established it to Thomas Hardy who perfected it. But Walpole uses in the midst of realistic circumstances symbols, slight as the spitting black cat in “The Captives” or all encompassing as the cathedral in the book of that name. Galsworthy combined methods too. His own preface makes clear that in “The Forsyte Saga” he has realistically preserved the Victorian middle classes in their own juices and romantically presented in Irene the symbol of Beauty impinged upon by an acquisitive world. Warwick Deeping and Charles Morgan mix Victorian sentimentalism with a favorable opinion of free-love, provided no one be sacrificed; and both Wells and Bennett often vary the simplest story forms that yet carry the most amazing ideas, with experiments in new methods of presentation.

In the field of the realists there has been the greatest variety of experimentation. The patterns of their books are almost as diverse as the incidents. Many of them use no plot-method in the sense of the complication of related incidents. Their method is nearer that of a scientist reporting a case than of an artist moulding a form; and yet often these novelists are very great artists, but they will not compromise with their convictions in adopting an art form that they consider untrue to life. They do not find life telling its stories with a beginning, a middle, and an end, with two or more conflicting interests struggling toward a climax, and a final outcome that completes a movement. They let their stories frame themselves according to the most appropriate arrangement of the material used. The most frequent devices are the use of a series of emotional crises in the life of one person or the reaction of a group of people toward each other. The nature of the aim usually determines the method of the novel for realist and romanticist alike. Sometimes the unifying principle is one of time, as in Swinnerton’s “Nocturne,” sometimes it is one of the place, as the enforced proximity of a group on one boat as in Virginia Woolf’s “The Voyage Out” or William Faulkner’s “Mosquitoes” or A. J. Cronin’s “Grand Canary.” The so-called experimentalists are as concerned with mental states and with the physical reactions of some people upon other people as an experimental psychologist would be. Just as the historical novelist used the material of the historians for fiction, so they use the material of the psychologists; and, since it furnishes more striking incidents, they are most apt to use conditions of abnormal psychology. They gather, and they usually present, their material detail by detail; they work after the fashion of the scientific method because what they write is a sort of fictitious science. Whether we like this kind of fiction or not is a matter for us as readers with free choice to decide, but it would be as unintelligent to judge a novel of this kind by the standards of another kind as it would be to criticize “Paradise Lost” because it is not “Hamlet.” Of the experimental realists we may say what Middleton Murry said of Joyce’s “Ulysses”: “It is the triumph of the desire to discover the truth over the desire to communicate that which is felt as truth.” The test of their success, therefore, is not beauty nor the pleasure that they give but the truthfulness and importance of what they present. They are imaginative scientists, in theory, bringing an imaginatively reconstructed confession of what they have observed in terms of what they have experienced as an addition to the conclusions of experimental science. Whether the novelist thinks of the novel primarily as for amusement, or as the vehicle of ideas, or as a form of art, he can always work with it as an artist. It is the poetic novel, and especially the novel of phantasy, that has been recently most creatively artistic. There has been as vivid a difference between one writer of romance and another as among the realists. Their disadvantage is that each novelist must create his method as well as his material, and once perfected the method cannot be repeated. Therefore James Stephens, Walter de la Mare, Arthur Machen, Algernon Blackwood, and W. H. Hudson could not repeat themselves. One “Green Mansions,” one “Crock of Gold,” one “Memoirs of a Midget,” and then the mould must be broken. Even when the psychological experimenter or the “stream of consciousness” novelist uses the poetic method or makes the symbol structural, as Virginia Woolf has done in “The Waves” and “To the Lighthouse,” the pattern must be original and remain, in its application, unique. She has dramatized the consciousness of her people but she has cast the one book into the pattern of the lapping waves and the other into the form of an hour glass. When realistic art is so fused by a poetic sensibility as that, it lifts itself from the grounds of ordinary experience and once more the walls between realism and romance disappear; for the highest art seems always real, and the beautiful and adventurous things of reality are always romantic.

If neither the realist nor the romanticist acknowledges today standards for the measurement of their art, it may be well to remember that periods of the most rigid enforcement of moral regulation or artistic convention have rarely been eras of high spiritual adventure or of fine imaginative creation. Only no man need be discouraged if out of so many different kinds of books all called novels, he gets sometimes the ones not meant for him. The escape is, to have the courage to find the right novel: and the right novel for any man is the one that was written for his taste.


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