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The Real and the Unreal

ISSUE:  Winter 1927

The World of William Clissold. By H. G. Wells. New York: George H. Doran Company. 2 vol., $5.00.

The Silver Stallion. By James Branch Cabell. New York: Robert McBride and Company. $2.50.

The Romantic Comedians. By Ellen Glasgow. New York: Doubleday, Page and Company. $2.50.

Crewe Train. By Rose Macaulay. New York: Boni and Liveright. $2.00.

The World That Was. By John G. Bowman. New York: The Macmillan Company. $1.50.

The Silver Spoon. By John Galsworthy. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons. $2.00.

Gallant Lady. By Margaret Widdemer. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company. $2.00.

The Birth of the Gods. By Dmitri S. Merezhkovsky. New York: E. P. Dutton and Company. $2.00.

Tropic Death. By Eric Walrond. New York: Boni and Liveright. $2.50.

Precious Bane. By Mary Webb. New York: E. P. Dutton and Company. $2.00.

Janet Thurso. By Alexander Moray. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company. $2.00.

The Ninth Wave. By Carl Van Doren. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company. $2.00.

Her Son’s Wife. By Dorothy Canfield. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company. $2.00.

THE novel used to be defined, in traditionally correct books like the dictionary and the encyclopedia, as a representation, by means of a plot, of the actions of characters drawn from real life. But modern revisions of encyclopedias show such a neat definition inexact and troublesome in the face of new books which are daily being classed as novels; and, no doubt, the makers of the dictionary will some day soon try their hands at more satisfactory discrimination. The whole difficulty is a matter of growth within the field of the thing we used to call the novel; our lack of exact terms arises from much the same sort of development that has made the definition of chemistry dangerous if done only in chemical terminology; it partakes too of the uncertainty in our use of the word, time, since hypotheses of relativity have widened our concepts: the old meanings for chemical and physical and biological words have had to be widened as the expansion of knowledge has made old fundamentals obviously complex. If the inclusion of new meanings in old words has not happened so much in the field of the novel, yet, at any rate, it has arisen from the same causes as have stimulated the changes in the scientific world: books like “Ulysses” and Wells’ “The Secret Places of the Heart” owe their literary divergences from the old novel form to outside changes in the world of scientific thought as surely as the later books of May Sinclair are turned and shaped by the dark discoveries of psychology.

To put it all very simply, the change in the meaning of the word, novel, has been to make the word mean a record of internal conflict and spiritual action rather than of external conflict and physical action. Away back in 1922 the thing took a big jump forward with the publication in France of that Irish monstrosity, “Ulysses.” Then for a while, during the growth in America of the yokel school of fiction, the significance of “Ulysses” was lost sight of, because in middle-western literature the pre-occupation of the authors with the pungent, if not beautiful, concrete-nesses of their world made us forget that their stories were not concerned much with the real actions of human beings or with a plot in the fine old English usage. They wrote books that, at any rate, were real, and so the definition of the novel remained much the same as it was in the days when Dickens and Thackeray had the good fortune to write untroubled by the sparks of the psychological anvils. But now—indeed ever since 1921, to use a date that marks Carl Van Doren’s summary of American novel tendencies—the story-teller has been forsaking not only plot but reality as well; more than that, he has often gone back to plot and sneered, as Cabell does so politely, at reality itself. What, then, in a literary world like this, when a novel is not a novel, is a man to say?

This perplexity furnishes an admirable text for this review of over a dozen new novels, books that exhibit every known divergence and agreement with the old definition. There is no one standard, no foot-rule to use on books that vary from the unreality of “The Silver Stallion” to the real but subjective reality of “The World of William Clissold.” In between comes story telling—strange as it may seem-that has no motive back of it but amusing the reader, giving him an entertaining hour or so by his reading lamp. The only way to be happy in the face of such an array of novels is, I suppose, to do as Margaret Fuller is said to have done, and “accept” the literary universe with a transcendent if uncritical approval.

Mr. h. g. Wells’ “The World of William Clissold” is by point of length and complexity and uniqueness the important book of this list. In a few slightly acid pages “before the title page,” Mr. Wells takes the time to divert critics from saying how much Clissold is a picture of Mr. Wells and how little the book is what we call a novel. H. G. Wells protests that he has been identified with everybody in his books from Tono-Bungay to Mr. Kipps, and he insists that he is no more writing about himself in any of his books than is Kipling or Hergesheimer, perhaps. Of course, admits Wells, nobody can write without coloring his characters somewhat with his own ideas, impulses, and characteristics.

Yet, says Mr. Wells in despair, he himself is more than unfairly attacked on this score. Everybody complains when Wells writes himself into a book, but everybody allows it when someone else does it in another book. And, adds Wells, more than all this, whenever he pictures a character type—for example, a Minister—everyone immediately identifies the Minister with one of Wells’ contemporaries and perhaps friends. And that, Wells implies, makes trouble.

Beyond the amusing comment that a critic might make when H. G. Wells says that people complain when he writes himself into a book and do not complain when others do, much needs to be said on the general proposition, for it affects vitally what we say about “The World of William Clissold.” All that can be sketched out briefly. First of all, Mr. Wells has, from his very first books, been one of the novelists who characterize themselves in every character that they draw. This is no criticism; it is a statement of a patent fact. Some writers can project themselves and be interested in other people; such men are like Kipling, who can write of Mulvaney and Ortheris and keep himself out. Other men give themselves infinite shapes, shapes we can take pleasure in, but all the shapes are those of the author’s own person. Such men are like H. G. Wells.

Now the world of Clissold is the world of Wells, and Clissold is Wells. Mr. H. G. Wells, the author, may object to Wells-Clissold, but they are one and the same, for all the author’s objections. This, with its amplification as you read the book, seems to me the one important comment on the novel. (I am willing to call the book a novel, since Mr. Wells is eager.)

“The World of William Clissold” is a novel of ideas and reflection and internal debate. That, in fact, is the world of William Clissold. To call the story an informal, narrative essay retelling of “The Outline of History” is not far wrong, despite the people in the book and the action. Clissold, from his early leisurely record of his life in the first volume to his tale of more intimate human—and not intellectual—relationships nearer the end of the story is a genial and provocative old fellow to whom we can listen with delight while he talks about men or women or the growth of the consciousness of the human race. This emphasis upon Idea is one of the achievements Mr. Wells hopes is to be his in these volumes.

The most interesting part of the whole thing to me—and so big a book demands many reviews—is the way the story is told. The author, as a god of the machine, does keep out, even though his identification with his hero may be clear. But Clissold sees only as far as we see; we understand what happens and who appears only as perfectly as Clissold understands. This adaptation of the biographical form to story telling, although not new, is something which H. G. Wells accomplishes in this story. It is more than diary; it is limitation of the thought of the book and the progress of its philosophy to the capability of William Clissold. As I have said, such a large book demands a single, long review or a number of short ones, but it has for me, these immediate interests.

“The Silver Stallion” is a long way from “The World of William Clissold.” Cabell’s book deliberately escapes real considerations and realists, even realists like Wells, whose reality is of the philosophic realm of a man’s thoughts that come as a reflection of tangible, physical realities. Wells is a realist just as surely as Lawrence is a realist of sensuality and Anderson a realist of emotionality. Each is concerned with a real transcript of actuality; it is only the actuality that differs. Wells is enthralled by the spectacle of human life growing more conscious of its possibilities as the years go on. Even impermanences like religion Wells judges as realities that affect the mind of men.

Cabell does not greatly care about the Idea of Humanity or the ultimate goal. He has long ago decided how worthless material considerations are and how impermanent and childish things like eternal love and systems of religion and rational thought become when looked at as positive achievements. Cabell’s solution to the whole business, years ago, was to forget, if he could, the drab realities and the rational systems and to lose himself in the charm of a world which, if recognized as illusion, was at least diverting and beautiful and not without its satisfaction. Such a world is not the world of most of us. Most of us cannot laugh at our own illusions and still play with them and be happy. Most of us must seriously accept the things Mr. Cabell seems to be able to get along without. And this is to say neither that Mr. Cabell is right nor that we are wrong. It is merely to state a fact.

“The Silver Stallion,” then, is a thrust—another thrust —at realists of all kinds, realists who call themselves evangelists, champions of a cause, honest truth seekers, or what not. Chiefly, it is a book that reduces to an absurdity, by means of a Knights of the Round Table parable, the kind of realism that says the world is not very good but that just around the corner is a redeemer who is going to make everything happy. I have heard “The Silver Stallion” commented upon as an exploitation of the Saviour myth in Christian terms. I do not believe such a meaning to the story is justified. Cabell is not talking religion only in this medieval burlesque. He is talking broader satire, poking fun at the half realism and half sentimentalism that wants to cry the world down with one voice and promise miracles of salvation for it with the other. He has, by chance, used a means that looks like parody on religious salvation. I do not mean he does not imply such a parody, but I do mean that he implies more. The genius of Cabell pervades the whole book, and in telling of the order of the Silver Stallion and of the One who was to come again, Cabell exhibits, even in his thrusts at our most cherished ideals, that suavity and grace, and poetry that make him endurable. I cannot remember, at the moment, one other man who could be sharp and smooth at the same time, unless it be George Meredith. There is always, of course, to be remembered bland and biting Chaucer.

I should have liked to record my enthusiastic reception of Ellen Glasgow’s “The Romantic Comedians,” for she is a woman, who, since her “Barren Ground,” makes you expect high accomplishments. I must confess, however, to a disappointment; I do not believe that satire is the happy field for a writer whose intense seriousness and vivid color of austerity in “Barren Ground” made that book a success. In “The Romantic Comedians,” there are, however, flashes of genius. There is first of all the description of place, the moody color of Miss Glasgow’s pictures of the out-doors that make the book almost convincing despite the stiffness of its characterizations and the wooden quality in its plot. Moments like this make “The Romantic Comedians” worth all the time it takes to read it:

Turning away, he went slowly indoors, and it seemed to him that he carried the inescapable burden of the April twilight within his heart.

Throughout the novel, lovely pictures of rooms and places color the story with authentic poetry.

The second quality i enjoyed was an occasional epigrammatic touch. If there had been more of it, the drag of tempo would possibly have escaped detection. At one place, the Judge tells his sister, “at your time of life, you might find something better to do than interfere with the private affairs of other people.” Edmonia replies, “At our time of life, Gamaliel, there isn’t much else that we can do.”

Despite all this, the book seems to me self-conscious and uneasy. It is not convincing irony. It does not, for me, tear away the dusty vestiges of sentimentalized Southern life. It tells a story, using a highly specialized plot (with rather ugly implications if it were carried through as in “Barren Ground”) that says little about Southern romance or romantic illusion and says little about unhappy marriages, which it chose to discuss. Of course, it is easy to see that Ellen Glasgow picked her May-and-December plot to emphasize the folly of the shop-worn figures of Southern stories, but she does not achieve that primary result and hence misses any secondary result, as well. The situation, highly specialized, tends to make us say, “Well, of course, the Judge looks silly, and so do his ideals of conduct, but if he had been put in a real situation, he wouldn’t seem ridiculous.” That seems to me the primary fault in the satire. The second is somewhat different. I found the book dull; the situations and the character development seemed dragged out and tedious. The verve and intensity of “Barren Ground” nowhere rescued the Comedians from their unreality and from their dullness. “The Romantic Comedians” has back of it an observance and critical attitude towards the life Miss Glasgow knows that is heartening. She is doing something, even in “The Romantic Comedians,” that is worth doing. She deserves all our attention to whatever she may in the future have to say.

Rose Macaulay, although she never writes a dull story, seems to have written herself out in that jolly and yet pitiful burlesque of Victorian England, “Told by an Idiot.” Her latest, “Crewe Train,” says nothing new and is touched with obviousness. “Crewe Train” suggests that much of the worry of being civilized and going to bridge parties and reading modern novels and getting married and going to church and talking small talk is waste effort. “Crewe Train” develops this idea by picturing Denham, an English girl, who is a magnificent savage, raised as a barbarian in a little European village where English travellers do not often come. When Denham’s father dies, her life as a barbarian is over, and she returns, fretting like an inarticulate William Morris, to the land, England, which her father left when she was young. It is Denham’s lot to marry a young editor, whose complex world wears her into rebellion. Finally, however, the call of being near her husband conquers Denham, and she returns to the bondage of being a civilized Londoner. The story is live and clever, and it makes enjoyable reading despite the pages of obvious explanation that Rose Macaulay seems to think it necessary to give us before we can understand what she and her people are trying to tell us.

“The World That Was” is a story about childhood. It does not patronize the little boy whose story it tells; neither does it sentimentalize over how splendid a thing it is to be very young. Rather, it presents to grown-ups the chance to look back to a time when clocks were of no use and when the world was an adventure, not all happy, yet all exciting and very wonderful. It is hard to be grown to manhood and still know how children feel about things like going to bed on a cold winter night and hearing the sounds of people moving around downstairs. It is hard to capture the ecstasy that comes to a small boy when he first hears Goldsmith’s “Deserted Village” read aloud and gets the music and the pain at the same time. Things like learning to play a flute and discovering how big a prairie farm can be, and planting a garden all your own, and wanting a bicycle, and hating to do chores are all part of the world that was. And, says the Preface, what the book is to do is take us back to those days of wonder and make our hearts beat as they did when the calliope in a mid-western town played “In the Sweet Bye and Bye” and “S’wanee River.”

It is hard to catch the charm of “The World That Was” in a review and make it seem like an achievement of the sort which it really is. Mr. Bowman catches the reality of the child world and by means of sentences that are not childish but simple and strong and beautiful, like childhood, he shapes a story that is full of the very color of being young. There are two old words used in composition classes that apply here, denotation and connotation. “The World That Was” has all the denotations of youth, the littie things like a train of cars that make up the child’s life. But beyond that, this book has a mood that goes straight to the heart of being small and wondering about things and wanting to be approved by people like Father and brother Charles. To read the little book is an adventure—a successful one—in being young again, and the connotations from your experience will run away with you into genuine poetry. The delightful experiment of being born an American child with a happy world of prairie and garden and school to grow into is part of the book’s discovery. It ought to help clear up the old delusion that beauty is somehow the heritage of European children alone, and that being young in America may be necessary and advantageous but somewhat unlovely. “The World That Was” presents a serious, simple, poetic picture of a little boy who grows up in the boundary of small town and country, that happy region where so many of us first learned that trees were different from each other and that birds were fun to watch and that some things about going to school were just about as good as they could be. The book deserves a wide and appreciative reading.

John Galsworthy keeps to the level he set for himself early in the history of the Forsytes by his latest chapter, “The Silver Spoon.” Coming as it does after “The White Monkey,” it invites an immediate comparison. It is hard to separate one book in the Saga from another; the critic is liable to the interpretation of “The Silver Spoon,” for example, in the light of all the other chapters of the series. He will, too, remember the solidity and reality of the Forsyte history and feel that he is getting nothing new but just more of an admirable accomplishment. Well, I do not see how to avoid such a background for judgment of “The Silver Spoon;” the old facility at character drawing, the old pre-occupation with the state of English politics still slows up the story but deepens it with reality, and the old ability of Galsworthy at telling about men and women in a way that makes them seem people and not written characters are all present. “The Silver Spoon” seems to me to move more rapidly than “The White Monkey” and to come to a more definite point. The despondent implication of the white monkey itself never seemed very clear to me; on the other hand, the selfishness and childishness of the modern Englishman focus easily both around the symbol and the plot of “The Silver Spoon.” The dramatic tension of the book needs a word; there is a sweep about the story that Galsworthy does not always have. Often, he seems unhappy or gloomy or austere, but not a story teller; this time he gets a situation—as in the court room and in the scene between the two women—that is undeniably vivid. The one man in the book who never gets real is the American, Francis Wilmot, whose Galsworthian diction—presumably that of a young Southerner—is amusing. However truly Galsworthy can make British people speak their tongue, he is as yet stagey when he uses American English. But this is no point for discussion; it is one of the minor points in the story that are to be noticed. And in “The Silver Spoon,” it must be said that Galsworthy is still the old Galsworthy, dissatisfied, worrying, uncertain, but offering no suggestions of the probable solution for English difficulties in the future. He warns, reproves, sympathizes, but does not direct. One wonders, sometimes, whether Galsworthy ever will.

“Gallant Lady” is an entertaining but not important novel. There is nothing to be said against it as a book of the sort it quite evidently sets out to be; but neither does it rise beyond the point of pleasant, rather sentimental storytelling. It possesses a neat little plot about a very modern young man and wife who live happily, love each other, and adore their baby, who by the way, never gets stupid as most book babies do. Then comes the shock of tragedy, for the husband has married another woman before he married Sibyl, his wife, and she, instead of being dead, comes to break up Sibyl’s home. Eventually, after a separation and Sibyl’s affairs with a charming rector and a doctor, everything turns out happily, and we get a weepy, and it must be admitted, facile little story that winds up smiling through its tears. If it be not put alongside Galsworthy or Wells or Cabell it does nicely.

“The Birth of the Gods” is typically Russian: mystical, inchoate, raw, barbarically beautiful, sexually repulsive, intense, and hard to understand. It is the tale of Cretan religion and the likeness of Cretan rites to what later took form in Christianity. The Preface tells us that the birth of God in Christianity, later on, came from the Birth of the Gods at the time of our story, and that is why the tale as told. It is a half poetized, half narrative study in comparative religions, and it loses, in its confusion and intensity, all semblance of a connected plot: Babylonian kings, vestal virgins, merchants, and secret rites mix in chaotic confusion and sometimes resolve into clarity. The beginning and end of the story fuse out into colorful, clean-cut incidents, and the sailing of the Bee on a ship while her lover burns to death for her on a sacrificial pyre reaches powerful pathos. But mixed in is the crudity and the fanaticism that capture the Russian mind; it is easy to see why the Russian, in his religion, cannot yet make of it a western faith, but embroiders it with the fierce coloring of an orient that has back of it the horrors of Cretan sacrifice. As a novel, the book goes to pieces; as a vivid presentation of Cretan religion and as a good interpretation of primitive attitudes towards things like sacrificial death and atonement, it is excellent.

“Tropic Death” is a story of the negro in his native background. It presents him, in a number of short violent stories, in his superstitious setting of bush savages. The sketches are parched, tragic, and picturesque. They are horrible, not from a riot of perverted emotions as we find in “The Birth of the Gods,” but from the over-intensity of normal emotions and from the stupidity and superstition that give rise to horrible incidents like feeding a baby pepper to make it drink milk. Each story is clear-cut, well defined, easy to understand, horribly effective, and fashioned to a powerful single mood and climax. The book is a distinct contribution to the literature of negro culture. Surprisingly enough, it pictures the negro not only in his barbaric state but in his state of civilization, meeting and living with white people in an equality which, if not genuine, is at least accepted. It is not a lovely book in any way, but it is well done—if you care for what it tries to do.

“Precious Bane” tries its luck at the old-fashioned sentimental diary of an unhappy woman. The story recounts the misery of an ugly woman, one who has a harelip, and must see her beautiful friend, Jancis, draw the admiration of the men. It is a dialect story, done with much exclamation and sentimentalized apostrophe, and it does not quite reach its goal. The story is a queer one, and the methods by which the heroine is made to have her eventual lover recognize the beauty of her form despite the deformity of her face, are novel to the point of silliness. The frankness of the incidents in the book and the complication of crimes that run from matricide to adultery to suicide make it a weird and unbelievable story, despite the fact that we must grant to the countryfolk of England that artlessness which allows brutality and crudeness. Substance the book certainly has, but to change its substance into a good novel, we need a refashioning of the whole thing so that sentimentalizing and quaintness match; or we need ruggedness and the austerity of a Hardy to give the passionate deeds and violence their true setting.

“Janet Thurso” deals with much the same people, but it does its work well. Its rugged simplicity and sweetness are not too sweet, and they are matched by normal situations and straightforward, simple writing that makes Janet seem the strong, artless woman that she is. The book is free of the smartness and the wordiness and the false poetry of most books that tell of the poor and the humble-minded. Janet Thurso seems to me one of the best defined women I have chanced upon in novels for a good while. The story of her as a child is beautiful; her fear of the dark road to the tavern is vividly told; so, too, is her desire to avoid telling a lie and yet not betray her brother, whom she fears, and her father, whom she obeys. Equally well drawn are the pictures of her husband, later in the book, and her sons. Mr. Moray possesses the faculty of putting down impressions so that they create people. He can do more; he can tell about these people in a way that makes us want to keep on reading. A third faculty he has of speaking of virtue and noble conduct and making it seem worthy of imitation. “Janet Thurso,” would be a pleasant experience for almost anyone who reads widely in the field of new books. It will never be a well-known book, but it deserves all the more appreciation from those who would by nature care for it. It makes me think of another simple, vivid book I read about two years ago, “The Windlestraw,” an English novel published in this country by Boni and Liveright and missed, I am afraid, by many of us who, enjoying Hardy, would have liked it.

“The Ninth Wave” uses the life of a college professor for a plot, and it is written by one, Carl Van Doren. For this reason, the book has been listed as a genuine interpretation of the college professor, and little else in it has been given consideration. I am willing to grant that it pictures a college teacher and does the job well, for there are as many teachers as there are policemen, and I would not know a type policeman if I met him in a book. Mr. Van Doren’s hero, at any rate, is not evolved from the comic paper; he does not forget that he is wearing his glasses; he does not blow out the gas, and he does not live a penniless, befogged life, tormented by mischievous urchins. Beyond this, Mr. Van Doren writes an interesting novel—that ought to be granted to this critic who has so humanely and seriously looked into other books for life and color and praised them when he found them there. The story of the two boys—Kent and Mel—who ride horseraces, go to small town dances, become friends, fall in love, and go to college wastes no time and falls into no traps of the sort that entice an author when he writes of growing boys. They are not made smart or pious or wholly light-hearted. They have moods like all the rest of us; they find going to school is fun, and so are dances, and so are races. The background of farm and country church and family direction places these real boys against a setting that never suggests manufacturing within an author’s study. The countryside and the boys take on reality because they must be a part of the reality Mr. Van Doren knows.

The ninth wave comes when Kent, a grown and successful teacher goes through the struggles and difficulties of marriage on to a still more successful later middle age. The book ends with the coming of a grandchild for whom, presumably, the waves of life will again begin their roll. The story is noteworthy for a tiiangle plot that does not come to pass. That, for me, is a symbol of the normality and ease of the book, which presents everyday conflict and success in a way that keeps our attention. There is nothing profound or subtle in the book; neither is it notable for a facile style. It is an ordinary, well-written novel that interprets capably in a good style a section of human experience that the writer possessed. “The Ninth Wave” has imagination, simplicity, and sustained interest as its chief recommendations. If it is not a distinguished novel, it is at least a good one. And this is to put the judgment on low terms.

Dorothy Canfield, from her first books, exhibited a repor-torial sense far above the average. She has always been able to write novels that sound like first rate feature stories. This is not a back-handed thrust, for by a feature story I mean clear, concrete, vivid telling of ordinary human conflicts like those that occur when a son marries the wrong girl or when a wife gets romantic about the wrong man. To me, Dorothy Canfield reached her high point in “Rough Hewn,” the boy and girl of which I still remember as the most plausible young college people I ever met in a book. In “Her Son’s Wife” this same ability at making people talk like ordinary Americans carries over into a different society and a different set of people, but they are no less rightly drawn for the kind they are. The theme, that of the vulgar daughter-in-law, is an old one, but Dorothy Can-field invests it with the reportorial detail she uses so well. As a result, the cheapness of Lottie’s frilly dresses and smelly perfumes and noisy friends are as raw and sickening as they would be in real life. This is what I mean by feature story writing. Sentences do not count, diction is not consciously good or bad, but the impression of cheapness or smelliness or noisiness is made unmistakable. As a result of this method, Dorothy Canfield is guilty of what most feature writers are guilty of, being obviously vivid. She over-writes; she explains things we already know; she tells us what people think and what they do not think when we already know without being told.

“Her Son’s Wife,” therefore, though it be prolix and talky, though its sentences may stretch on and on, and though it tell in full what might better be sketched in, has no trouble in picking up our attention and keeping it to the last page. It is the sort of prose that you find yourself forgetting is writing at all; you read on as you would read a letter from a garrulous neighbor from your home town. If this is not shapely writing, it is at least facile writing; if it has no import beyond the domestic import, at any rate, we are still most of us interested in the daughter-in-law and mother-in-law conflict. Since that still appeals, “Her Son’s Wife” will be passing popular.


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