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The Novelist as Artist

ISSUE:  Spring 1944

A Certain Measure. By Ellen Glasgow. Harcourt, Brace and Company. $3.50.

“Nevertheless, there are arts, and the novel is one of them.” I do not think that Ellen Glasgow would agree with me that the conception of the novel as a form of art originated in America with Nathaniel Hawthorne and was most completely adhered to by Henry James. If, as again Miss Glasgow says, “the republic of letters surrendered unconditionally to the cult of the amateur,” some of the noblest figures in fiction of the nineteenth century, and a few of the twentieth, have represented the novelist as artist. To name them settles the argument. Joseph Conrad, Robert Louis Stevenson, Thomas Hardy, Meredith, Willa Cather, James Stephens, and Walter de la Mare. Is the list to be extended with George Moore, John Galsworthy, and, shall we say, Edith Wharton? They have in common, I think, the attitude of an artist working in a certain medium to achieve a work of art. I should agree with Miss Glasgow that Daniel Defoe was the first great novelist and that Fielding is the greatest English novelist, but I think that great artists as they were, they did not think of the novel as a form of art. The art was in the way the thing was done rather than the thing in itself and its form. To Defoe the art was in writing so that readers would feel that Moll Flanders would have thought and written so. Fielding talked of Aristotle and the laws of drama but his art was the art of great writing and great creation. It is the conscious thought of the form, the book as a whole, that makes a difference in Hawthorne’s work—or Ellen Glasgow’s. Not that this approach is necessary to a good novelist. She is right seemingly in thinking that it is unfashionable “to regard a work of fiction as a form of art.” She herself says, “All that is required indeed for the novel . . . are three characters, two passions, and one point of view.” And Fielding had all “the elemental properties which make great novels wherever they are written,” which Miss Glasgow enumerates,—”power, passion, pity, ecstasy and anguish, hope and despair.” But Fielding did not work as a painter fitting his design to his canvas. Conrad did, and Henry James. And in the prefaces to her own novels, which collected, with the title, “A Certain Measure,” constitute genuinely, as the subtitle implies, “an interpretation of prose fiction,” Ellen Glasgow demonstrates that she, too, is the novelist as artist. “Only as a form of art has fiction ever concerned me,” she affirms and elsewhere completes the affirmation, “And, from my unimportant point of view, only a form of art appears in a certain measure to be worthy of the dedicated service of forty years.”

Unlike the conception of the hero—and the author—of “Tono-Bungay,” Ellen Glasgow’s ideas of the novel are austere rather than comprehensive. “The true novel,” she says, eliminating the run of the mill in a parenthesis, “is, like pure poetry, an act of birth, not a device or an invention.” There is no phrase that she uses of fiction oftener in her prefaces than one with the word “art” in it, but the creative power as evinced in characters and style is what she discusses most. “The art of fiction has remained the most accurate mirror of different stages in the pilgrimage of humanity,” is her tribute to the novel as a form; but her idea of what a novel must do is suggested by two sentences which I bring together: “The power to create life is the staple of fiction” and the chief end of the novel is “to increase our understanding of life and heighten our consciousness.”

This is Ellen Glasgow’s philosophy of the novel. There is much more than a discussion of fiction in “A Certain Measure” and I must comment on some of it before I come back to consider her analysis of her own work as a novelist. There are at least some thirty units that might be abstracted and printed as brief essays, each with its wit and its wisdom tempered to a point. There is good talk about free speech and culture, the young to-day, the Confederacy as the “last expiring gesture of chivalry,” realism and idealism, the talk of the intelligentsia, Past and Present, and Proust, Woolf, and Joyce, who wrote a work of genius but “a dull work of genius.” There are comments on most important—and I must think some unimportant—novelists of the South, and brilliant reflections on the old South and the changing South. Not to quote her is more difficult than to resist the third sip of the julep, but I content myself for the remainder of a paragraph by giving titles to some of the brief essays that would make part of my anthology: American Literary Opinion, The Future of Fiction, The Truth of Art and the Truth of Life, Why Is There No Southern Fielding?, Americanism, Spinning Theories of Fiction, “Poor White” and “Good People,” and—but mercy on us!

In “A Certain Measure” there is a shadowy autobiography of Ellen Glasgow that—it is her own fault if I play with words and irony—runs from the days of Thomas Hardy to those of James Branch Cabell. Irony is an indispensable ingredient of the critical vision, she warns us, but she would not like it if I stressed the wistfulness with which she regards that young Virginia girl to whom no college taught the art of fiction. She has given me too many answers for me to hesitate, afraid: “the comic spirit may be wistful, but it is never solemn.” George Meredith himself could not have said it better! A scoffer has remarked that the chief advantage of going through college is the knowledge you gain of what you would have thought you missed if you had not gone through college. Ellen Glasgow is prouder of the examination that she passed privately under Dr. George Frederick Holmes of the University of Virginia than of the William and Mary Phi Beta Kappa key and the several sheepskins of assorted degrees from colleges in and outside of Virginia. But wise woman that she is, she should know that she received more that was, for her, celestial food in that self-decreed pursuit of knowledge than any young woman will who sits in my class and listens to lectures on the technique of the novel. The essentially different factor is that the young woman was Ellen Glasgow. She was born in the generation—though later—of Amelie Rives and Mary Johnston at the time of the last stand in Virginia of the aristocratic tradition: what young woman with the doors of five “state colleges” and the University of George Frederick Holmes’ successors open to her is promising to do better? Her teachers were John Stuart Mill, Adam Smith, Malthus, Sir Henry Maine, Walter Bagehot, Balzac, Flaubert, Maupassant, and “every celebrated” novelist who had written in English. The book that influenced her most profoundly in her youth was “The Origin of Species.” No marvel that she might have been called “a verist” had such a term come her way. And no wonder, what with the sorrows of all the animals (she has long led the S. P. C. A. in Virginia), and of the people of her created world on her heart, after such a schooling, that she should find herself not happy, only “always interested and often amused.” That was poor preparation for a Richmond debutante, but the best for a novelist who was from the first to put her “faith in ideas.” Even if at the end she finds that in herself “a kind of cheerful pessimism, lightly turning into ironic amusement, has hardened to fortitude,” that fortitude gives her the vision to see that “tragedy lies not in defeat but in surrender,” and in the light of that vision she wrote “In This Our Life,” the new preface to which forms the last chapter in “A Certain Measure.” It is a grim philosophy that has “not anywhere, discovered a reason to deny Thoreau’s profound saying: ‘The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.’ ” Through it all, we may believe, even before “American idealism was safely buried in Flanders fields,” she had at least the satisfaction of “the liberty not to believe” what was not the truth for her and “not to be glad.” A brave heart is not out of place in a woman’s breast. With more wistfulness than irony, I fear, Ellen Glasgow once wrote that “few persistent novelists, I suppose, have ever received in one lifetime so generous a measure of benevolent neglect.” Certainly to-day, with two collected editions on the shelves and a nation’s recognition, she would seem, if she holds to that, to have some illusions regarding the discrimination in literature of her own public whether, as she says, she has none of posterity’s or not. She states her consolation for herself in the closing words of her book, wherein also she interpreted her title: “We find, in a certain measure, what we have to give, if not what we seek, both in this external world about us and in the more solitary life of the mind.” I am not sure that for all her faith of fortitude Ellen Glasgow does not know in the inner core of her mind that it is more happy to give than to receive.

Since each of the chapters of “A Certain Measure” was written as a preface to one of the Glasgow novels the most rewarding phase of these essays is the discussion of the novels by their author. Not before in American literature has a literary artist of critical acumen discussed so intimately and at such length the creative processes and conscious aims that gave form to the novels. Each novel has its own story. Some were the result of careful planning and devoted labor. “The Descendant,” her first novel, was begun when she was eighteen and then put aside for several years. “The Voice of the People” grew “from an effortless and inherited knowledge,” and “The Romantic Comedians” “bubbled over with an effortless joy.”

Miss Glasgow suggests that from the beginning her novels formed themselves within her imagination in terms of the novel’s own organic principles, but she makes it clear that her later novels were written with a more conscious interest in technique. She had learned that “the supreme merit lies in the vision of the artist” and she understood a theory of realism in fiction from the beginning of her authorship; but the understanding of “a single, or at least a restricted, point of view” came to her more gradually. She marks the development of a new awareness in her art with the writing of “Barren Ground” when she found herself able “to orient herself anew” and to respond “to a fresh and, apparently, a different, creative impulse.” She illustrates with rare objectivity for a creative artist some of the ways in which she has employed reverie in prose, the past and present coexistent in time and time itself “as a subjective medium.” She explains the purpose of the rhythms in certain of the novels and the patterns used in others. “Vein of Iron” is woven of sound and in the very beginning moves swiftly “to the patter of running feet.” “The Sheltered Life” is “shot 1 through with scents and colours.” “They Stooped to Folly” is characterized by “laughing animation” and “The Romantic Comedians” is “composed of rippling lights.”

Not always has Miss Glasgow found the understanding from her readers, including the critics, that she desired. Though from the beginning she wrote with a use of that “cutting edge of truth that we call irony,” she was to learn that “in print, one must be brutally obvious if one wishes not to be misunderstood.”

Especially she felt that “In This Our Life” was not taken, as she meant it, as “an analysis in fiction of the modern temper,” “a dissolving moment in time” “between an age that is slipping out and an age that is hastening in.” She intended that Asa’s refusal to surrender should be felt to be “one of those rare defeats that are victories.”

“A Certain Measure,” like Somerset Maugham’s “The Summing Up,” is the noblest type of autobiography that a novelist can write. It is worthy of the novels that it helps us understand. And if there be ironies implicit as well as expressed in this distinguished volume, it may serve to quote part of a sentence said of one of her novels and so to let the lady herself have the last word, “The sting of its irony lies in the point of its truth.”


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