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Outlines of English and American Literature
Some Recent Novelists (Realism)
by Long, William J.


There is a difference between our earlier and later fiction which becomes apparent when we compare specific examples. As a type of the earlier novel take Cooper's The Spy or Longfellow's Hyperion or Hawthorne's The House of the Seven Gables or Simms's Katherine Walton or Cooke's The Virginia Comedians, and read it in connection with a recent novel, such as Howells's Annie Kilburn or Miss Jewett's Deephaven or Harold Frederick's Illumination or James Lane Allen's The Reign of Law or Frank Norris's The Octopus. Disregarding the important element of style, we note that the earlier novels have a distant background in time or space; that their chief interest lies in the story they have to tell; that they take us far away from present reality into regions where people are more impressive and sentiments more exalted than in our familiar, prosaic world. The later novels interest us less by the story than by the analysis of character; they deal with human life as it is here and now, not as we imagine it to have been elsewhere or in a golden age. In a word, our later novels are realistic in purpose, and in this respect they are in marked contrast with our novels of an earlier age, which are nearly all of the romantic kind. [Footnote: In the above comparison we have ignored a large number of recent novels that are quite as romantic as any written before the war. Romance is still, as in all past ages, more popular than realism: witness the millions of readers of Lew Wallace, E. P. Roe and other modern romancers.]

The realistic movement in American fiction began, as we have noted, with the short-story writers; and presently the most talented of these writers, having learned the value of real scenes and characters, turned to the novel and produced works having the double interest of romance and realism; that is, they told an old romantic tale of love or heroism and set it amid scenes or characters that were typical of American life. Miss Jewett's novels of northern village life, for example, are even finer than her short stories in the same field. The same criticism applies to Miss Murfree with her novels of mountaineer life in Tennessee, to James Lane Allen with his novels of his native Kentucky, and to many another recent novelist who tells a brave tale of his own people. We call these, in the conventional way, novels of New England or the South or the West; in reality they are novels of humanity, of the old unchanging tragedies or comedies of human life, which seem more true or real to us because they appear in a familiar setting.

There is another school of realism which subordinates the story element, which avoids as untrue all unusual or heroic incidents and deals with ordinary men or women; and of this school William Dean Howells is a conspicuous example. Judging him by his novels alone it would be difficult to determine his rank; but judging him by his high aim and distinguished style (a style remarkable for its charm and purity in an age too much influenced by newspaper slang and smartness) he is certainly one of the best of our recent prose writers. Since his first modest volume appeared in 1860 he has published many poems, sketches of travel, appreciations of literature, parlor comedies, novels,--an immense variety of writings; but whatever one reads of his sixty-odd books, whether Venetian Life or A Boys' Town, one has the impression of an author who lives for literature, who puts forth no hasty or unworthy work, and who aims steadily to be true to the best traditions of American letters.

In middle life Howells turned definitely to fiction and wrote, among various other novels, A Woman's Reason, The Minister's Charge, A Modern Instance and The Rise of Silas Lapham. These are all realistic in that they deal frankly with contemporary life; but in their plots and conventional endings they differ but little from the typical romance. [Footnote: Several of Howells's earlier novels deal with New England life, but superficially and without understanding. However minutely they depict its manners or mannerisms they seldom dip beneath the surface. If the reader wants not the body but the soul of New England, he must go to some other fiction writer, to Sarah Orne Jewett, for example, or to Rose Terry Cooke] Then Howells fell under the influence of Tolstoi and other European realists, and his later novels, such as Annie Kilburn, A Hazard of New Fortunes and The Quality of Mercy, are rather aimless studies of the speech, dress, mannerisms and inanities of American life with precious little of its ideals,--which are the only things of consequence, since they alone endure. He appears here as the photographer rather than the painter of American life, and his work has the limited interest of another person's family album.

Another realist of a very different kind is Samuel L. Clemens (1835-1910), who is more widely known by his pseudonym of Mark Twain. He grew up, he tells us, in "a loafing, down-at-the-heels town in Missouri"; he was educated "on the river," and in most of his work he attempted to deal with the rough-and-ready life which he knew intimately at first hand. His Life on the Mississippi, a vivid delineation of river scenes and characters, is perhaps his best work, or at least the most true to his aim and his experience. Roughing It is another volume from his store of personal observation, this time in the western mining camps; but here his realism goes as far astray from truth as any old romance in that it exaggerates even the sensational elements of frontier life.

The remaining works of Mark Twain are, with one or two exceptions, of very doubtful value. Their great popularity for a time was due largely to the author's reputation as a humorist,--a strange reputation it begins to appear, for he was at heart a pessimist, an iconoclast, a thrower of stones, and with the exception of his earliest work, The Celebrated Jumping Frog (1867), which reflected some rough fun or horseplay, it is questionable whether the term "humorous" can properly be applied to any of his books. Thus the blatant Innocents Abroad is not a work of humor but of ridicule (a very different matter), which jeers at travelers who profess admiration for the scenery or institutions of Europe,--an admiration that was a sham to Mark Twain because he was incapable of understanding it. So with the grotesque capers of A Connecticut Yankee at King Arthur's Court, with the sneering spirit of The Man that Corrupted Hadleyburg, with the labored attempts to be funny of Adam's Diary and with other alleged humorous works; readers of the next generation may ask not what we found to amuse us in such works but how we could tolerate such crudity or cynicism or bad taste in the name of American humor.

The most widely read of Mark Twain's works are Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. The former, a glorification of a liar and his dime-novel adventures, has enough descriptive power to make the story readable, but hardly enough to disguise its sensationalism, its lawlessness, its false standards of boy life and American life. In Huckleberry Finn, a much better book, the author depicts the life of the Middle West as seen by a homeless vagabond. With a runaway slave as a companion the hero, Huck Finn, drifts down the Mississippi on a raft, meeting with startling experiences at the hands of quacks and imposters of every kind. One might suppose, if one took this picaresque record seriously, that a large section of our country was peopled wholly by knaves and fools. The adventures are again of a sensational kind; but the characters are powerfully drawn, and the vivid pictures of the mighty river by day or night are among the best examples of descriptive writing in our literature.

Crane and Norris

Still another type of realism is suggested by the names Stephen Crane and Frank Norris. These young writers, influenced by the French novelist Zola, condemned the old romance as false and proclaimed, somewhat grandly at first, that they would tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Then they straightway forgot that health and moral sanity are the truth of life, and proceeded to deal with degraded or degenerate characters as if these were typical of humanity. Their earlier works are studies of brutality, miscalled realism; but later Crane wrote his Red Badge of Courage (a rather wildly imaginative story of the Civil War), and Norris produced works of real power in The Octopus and The Pit, one a prose epic of the railroad, the other of a grain of wheat from the time it is sown in the ground until it becomes a matter of good food or of crazy speculation. There is an impression of vastness, of continental breadth and sweep, in these two novels which sets them apart from all other fiction of the period.

The flood of dialect stories which appeared after 1876 may seem at first glance to be mere variations of Bret Harte's local-color stories, but they are something more and better than that. The best of them--such, for example, as Page's In Ole Virginia or Rowland Robinson's Danvis Folk--are written on the assumption that we can never understand a man, that is, the soul of a man, unless we know the very language in which he expresses his thought or feeling. These dialect stories, therefore, are intimate studies of American life rather than of local speech or manners.

Harris

Joel Chandler Harris (1848-1908) is not our best writer of dialect stories but only the happy and most fortunate man who wrote Uncle Remus (1880), and wrote it, by the way, as part of his day's work as a newspaper man, without a thought that it was a masterpiece, a work of genius. The first charm of the book is that it fascinates children with its frolicsome adventures of Brer Rabbit, Brer Tarrypin, Brer B'ar, Brer Fox and the wonderful Tar Baby; the second, that it combines in a remarkable way a primitive or universal with a local and intensely human interest. Thus, almost everybody is interested in folklore, especially in the animal stories which are part of the tradition of every primitive tribe; but folklore, as commonly written, is not a branch of fiction but of science. Before it can enter the golden door of literature it must find or create some human character who interests us not by his stories but by his humanity; and Harris furnished this character in the person of Uncle Remus, a very lovable old plantation negro, drawn with absolute fidelity to life.

Other novelists have portrayed a negro in fiction, but Harris did a more original work by creating his Brer Rabbit. In the adventures of this happy-go-lucky creature, with his childishness and humor, we have the symbol not of any one negro but of the whole race of negroes as the author knew them intimately in a condition of servitude. The creation of these two original characters, as real as Poor Richard or Natty Bumppo and far more fascinating, is one of the most notable achievements of American fiction.

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