Full name Benjamin Franklin Norris, Jr. Education: Studied painting at the Atelier Julien, ; attended University of California at Berkeley, ; attended Harvard University , Hobbies and other interests: Painting, illustration. Novelist, short story writer, essayist, journalist, critic, and poet. The Pit was adapted for the stage by Channing Pol-lock and debuted on Broadway, ; it was also adapted as the films A Corner in Wheat, directed by D. Although he died less than five years after publishing his first novel, Frank Norris stands as one of the key figures of early twentieth-century American literature.
In novels such as McTeague: A Story of San Francisco and The Octopus: A Story of California, Norris pioneered the use of realistic settings, violent conflicts, and working-class characters who were often portrayed as victims of their environment. These elements placed him in the literary movement known as American naturalism, alongside such authors as Jack London , Stephen Crane , and Theodore Dreiser.
What distinguished Norris, according to Warren French in his Frank Norris, was that "his inside knowledge of the leisure class. While many writers have studied this Society, few have been able to give an intimate insight into the raw, unsophisticated ruthlessness that motivated 'conspicuous consumption. Benjamin Franklin Norris, Jr. His father had been raised in rural Michigan, but left the family farm to become a jeweler. A self-made man, the elder Norris eventually rose to own a large wholesale jewelry business. His wife, Gertrude, was a former teacher and actress who encouraged the family in matters of culture and taste.
She frequently gave dramatic poetry readings to Norris and his younger brothers, and was known for her involvement in public literary societies. The Norrises left the cold winters of the Midwest for California in , eventually settling in San Francisco. There the elder Norris increased his wealth by investing heavily in real estate. At first young Norris attended a college preparatory school, but dropped out after breaking his arm playing football.
Finding the study of business unappealing, he began training as a painter instead. His parents encouraged him to the point of moving the family to Europe so that young Frank could gain more professional instruction. His family remained with him for a year, but they returned to San Francisco in , leaving the eighteen-year-old Norris to his own devices. Increasingly, his interests led him away from painting and into writing.
A fascination with medieval armor led to his first article, which was published in the San Francisco Chronicle in Popular legend has it that when Norris's father discovered Frank was neglecting his studies, he was summoned home immediately. Other accounts, however, suggest that the young writer returned home on his own initiative, having tired of painting.
In any case, by Norris was back in California and attending the state university at Berkeley. Because he lacked qualifications in math, Norris was only granted limited status at Berkeley. He showed little interest in classes that would have qualified him to join his father's business, but instead became heavily involved in campus magazines and theater productions, as well as the local chapter of the Phi Gamma Delta fraternity. While a sophomore, he combined his interest in the Middle Ages with the Romantic stories favored by his mother to produce the epic poem Yvernelle: A Legend of Feudal France.
Subsidized by his mother's money, the book was published by Lippincott in A ballad in the vein of Sir Walter Scott , Yvernelle is the story of a knight who is cursed by his lover after breaking off their affair, and must find a way to recover his virtue and claim his true love. Although Norris later disowned Yvernelle —and would later parody such overly romanticized pieces of "fine writing"—the poem brought him some commercial success. Meanwhile, Norris continued his studies at Berkeley, focusing on subjects that would prepare him for a career as a novelist.
Instead of presenting heroic characters engaged in morally uplifting deeds, Zola's fiction told realistic stories of human weakness without presuming to pass judgment. In particular, Zola emphasized how heredity and environment shaped people's thoughts and actions; his characters were either "born" to misbehave or were pressured into it by society. Norris found validation of Zola's theories in some of his zoology and anthropology classes at Berkeley, which similarly explored theories of human evolution and environment.
He did not complete enough courses to please the university administration, however, and after four years he left Berkeley without a degree. That same year his parents divorced—a shocking event for , but one that left Norris without any responsibility to take up his father's business.
Instead, he moved across the country with his mother and entered Harvard University, again as a special student. It was at Harvard that Norris finally found the inspiration he needed. He came under the tutelage of Lewis Gates, who believed that writing was a craft that could be honed and taught. Under Gates' direction, Norris wrote a series of sketches that later served as portions of the novels Blix, McTeague, and Vandover and the Brute.
Confident that he was headed in the right direction, Norris left Harvard after a year in search of a broader experience. Although the young writer had begun to publish small pieces in newspapers and journals, he realized he would need a greater knowledge of the world before he could write the kind of meaningful fiction he aspired to create. In he set out for Africa, intending to travel from South Africa to Egypt; the San Francisco Chronicle was to publish his travelogues.
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Unfortunately, he was caught up in Jamieson Raid, an attempt by British colonists to overthrow the Boer government of South Africa's Transvaal region. He was deported from the country in a weakened state, having caught a tropical fever, and was shipped to England to recover. Despite having seen "real action" during an event that was of major interest to the English-speaking world, he only placed one article in a national magazine.
He returned to San Francisco in , having failed to gain either the experience or the renown he desired. In San Francisco, however, Norris found his first regular job: as a copywriter and editorial assistant for The Wave, a small newspaper with limited circulation. During his years there he contributed short stories, reviews, literary essays, interviews, sketches of local life, and even a weekly column about football. In a Sunset article, Gelett Burgess noted that these early Wave writings are "nuggets [that] always have a crude, fierce, barbaric quality, not minted into artistic form. Yet in each of these tales is a character to remember, animated usually by some primitive instinct or passion, strikingly informed with reality.
An Athenaeum critic observed that despite being beginner's work, the sketches "contain imaginative touches, and interesting evidence of a writer's progress towards realization of his powers. The critic concluded that "his was the talent of making the ordinary seem extraordinary and thus interesting. Despite the volume and increasing quality of Norris's work for the Wave, the paper's local circulation limited the author's exposure.
Although by he had finished the manuscript of McTeague, the novel's brutal realism had scared away any prospective publishers. At twenty-seven, Norris continued to depend on his mother for financial support, and depression set in. Two people helped bolster his determination to find success, however: Jeannette Black, the young woman who would become his wife; and Joseph Hodgson, a Coast Guard captain whose tales of the ocean served as inspiration for the young writer.
Realizing that adventure stories were in demand with the reading public, Norris began serializing Moran of the Lady Letty: A Story of Adventure off the California Coast, a sensational story of nautical intrigue and adventure. Ross Wilbur, a wealthy and coddled young San Franciscan, is kidnapped and taken aboard a salvage vessel to work. During the course of his adventures his crew finds the Lady Letty, an abandoned ship whose only occupant is Moran, a young shipwreck survivor with no experience with men.
Although Wilbur "tames" this uncivilized girl by falling in love with her, the ending is not happy: Moran is killed by a Chinese crewman looking to steal valuables. French believed that this overwrought melodrama had little to recommend it, except for the unconventional ending, which foreshadowed Norris's future work: "Moran's murder by a debased creature seeking to steal a fortune is another denunciation of the corrupting influence of civilization," the critic remarked.
American Writers contributor W. Frohock, however, noted that despite being filled with implausible events and nautical misinformation, " Moran has the distinction of being one of the best yarns about salt water and derring-do ever written by an author who knew nothing firsthand about either. Whatever its faults, the installments of Moran caught the eye of the S. McClure Syndicate. Based on these chapters, the syndicate offered Norris a position with their company in New York, as well as a chance to publish Moran as a book. One of his first tasks for McClure was to cover the Spanish-American War in Cuba; his experiences there proved disheartening, however, and after contracting malaria he returned to San Francisco to recuperate.
He continued his romance with Jeannette Black, a relationship that was to inspire his novel Blix. This semi-autobiographical tale details the growing friendship between Condy Rivers, an aspiring young writer, and a high-spirited society girl whom he nicknames "Blix. Through her encouragement, Condy learns to stop squandering his time on gambling and other idle pursuits, and instead focus on his writing.
When Blix finally heads off to medical school in New York, their separation forces the two friends to realize they are truly in love. It is only when Condy discovers that a rejected manuscript also contains a job offer in New York that the story ends happily. Although the least melodramatic of Norris's novels, it is still a minor work, of interest mainly for its autobiographical insight. While Blix "rejects hypocritical social conventions for the sake of more honest and thus more natural and ideal ways of living," McElrath explained, it nevertheless "fail[s] to dramatize modern questions and predicaments in universally relevant and engaging fashion.
Shortly after moving to New York, Norris met William Dean Howells , one of the most noted novelists and critics of the day. Howells read the young author's McTeague and urged him to publish it, although previous attempts had met with rejection. Now, however, Norris had one novel to his credit as well as his position with McClure to recommend him, and McTeague was published in early Inspired by a real-life criminal case from , McTeague traces the fall of an amateur dentist into debt, cruelty, and murder.
McTeague his first name is never given has a successful if unlicensed dental practice in San Francisco until he falls in love with a patient named Trina. She chooses to marry him instead of her cousin Marcus, who feels he has been cheated when Trina wins a lottery of five thousand dollars.
The Empathetic Camera: Frank Norris and the Invention of Film Editing
To take revenge, Marcus reports his rival to the authorities, thus ending McTeague's dentistry practice and leaving him without a job. Trina hoards all of her lottery winnings, infuriating her husband and leading to a downward spiral of poverty, alcoholism, and violence that ends with her murder at McTeague's hands. Finally in possession of his wife's gold, McTeague flees to the mining country of the Sierras with Marcus in pursuit.
The two struggle and McTeague triumphs, but not before his rival manages to handcuff himself to McTeague. The novel concludes with McTeague shackled to a corpse in the searing climate of Death Valley , miles away from any water or rescue. McTeague was a controversial work for the critics and readers of Instead of being the typical upper-or middle-class American hero who strives to improve his life, the lower-class McTeague degenerates into violence and brutality. Although Norris provided evocative descriptions of San Francisco's Polk Street neighborhood, some contemporary critics felt this did not excuse "grossness for the sake of grossness," as a Literary World writer described it.
The critic continued: "That Mr. Jones across the street than she is for your sensitive, fastidi ous, keenly critical artist, litterateur, or critic. The People Mrs. Jones and her neighbours- take the life history of these fictitious charac ters, these novels, to heart with a seriousness that the esthetic cult have no conception of. The cult consider them almost solely from their artistic sides. The People take them into their innermost lives. Nor do the People discrimi nate.
Omnivorous readers as they are to-day, they make little distinction between Maggie Tulliver and the heroine of the last " popular novel. How necessary it becomes, then, for those who, by the simple art of writing, can invade the heart s heart of thousands, whose novels are received with such measureless earnestness how necessary it becomes for those who wield such power to use it rightfully.
Is it not expedient to act fairly? Is it not in Heaven s name essential that the People hear, not a lie, but the Truth? If the novel were not one of the most impor tant factors of modern life ; if it were not the completest expression of our civilization; if its influence were not greater than all the pulpits, than all the newspapers between the oceans, it The Responsibilities of the Novelist g would not be so important that its message should be true.
But the novelist to-day is the one who reaches the greatest audience. Right or wrong, the People turn to him the moment he speaks, and what he says they believe. For the Million, Life is a contracted affair, is bounded by the walls of the narrow channel of affairs in which their feet are set. They have no horizon. They look to-day as they never have looked before, as they never will look again, to the writer of fiction to give them an idea of life beyond their limits, and they believe him as they never have believed before and never will again.
This being so, is it not difficult to understand how certain of these successful writers of fiction these favoured ones into whose hands the gods have placed the great bow of Ulysses can look so frivolously upon their craft? It is not necessary to specify. One speaks of those whose public is measured by "one hundred and fifty thousand copies sold.
But what of the " hundred and fifty thousand" who are not discerning and who receive this falseness as Truth, who believe this topsy-turvy picture of Life io The Responsibilities of the Novelist beyond their horizons is real and vital and sane? There is no gauge to measure the extent of this malignant influence. Public opinion is made no one can say how, by infinitesimal accretions, by a multitude of minutest elements. Lying novels, surely, surely in this day and age of indiscriminate reading, contribute to this more than all other influences of present-day activity.
The Pulpit, the Press and the Novel these indisputably are the great moulders of public opinion and public morals to-day. But the Pulpit speaks but once a week ; the Press is read with lightning haste and the morning news is waste-paper by noon. But the novel goes into the home to stay.
It is read word for word ; is talked about, discussed ; its influence penetrates every chink and corner of the family. Yet novelists are not found wanting who write for money. I do not think this is an unfounded accusation. I do not think it asking too much of credulity. This would not matter if they wrote the Truth But these gentlemen who are "in literature for their own pocket every time" have discovered that for the moment the People have confounded the Wrong with the Right, and prefer that which is a lie to that which is true. The surprising thing about this is that you and I and all the rest of us do not consider this as disreputable do not yet realize that the novelist has responsibilities.
We condemn an editor who sells his editorial columns, and we revile the pulpit attainted of venality. But the venal novelist he whose influence is greater than either the Press or Pulpit him we greet with a wink and the tongue in the cheek. This should not be so.
Somewhere the protest should be raised, and those of us who see the practice of this fraud should bring home to ourselves the realization that the selling of one hundred and fifty thousand books is a serious business. The People have a right to the Truth as they have a right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It is not right that they be exploited and deceived with false views of life, false characters, false sentiment, false morality, false history, false philosophy, false emotions, false heroism, false notions of self-sacrifice, false views of religion, of duty, of conduct and of manners.
It is the method of attack of the latter-day copyists that one deplores their attitude, the willingness of so very, very many of them to take off the hat to Fashion, and then hold the same hat for Fashion to drop pennies in. Ah, but the man must be above the work or the work is worthless, and the man better off at some other work than that of producing fiction. The eye never once should wander to the gallery, but be always with single purpose turned inward upon the work, testing it and retesting it that it rings true What one quarrels with is the perversion of a profession, the detestable trading upon another man s success.
No one can find fault with those few good historical novels that started the fad. There was good workmanship in these, and honesty. But the copyists, the fakirs they are not novelists at all, though they write novels that sell by the hundreds of 1 6 The Responsibilities of the Novelist thousands.
They are business men. They find out no, they allow some one else to find out what the public wants, and they give it to the public cheap, and advertise it as a new soap is advertised. Well, they make money; and, if that is their aim if they are content to prostitute the good name of American literature for a sliding scale of royalties let s have done with them. They have their reward. But the lamentable result will be that these copyists will in the end so prejudice the people against an admirable school of fiction the school of Scott that for years to come the tale of historic times will be discredited and many a great story remain unwritten, and many a man of actual worth and real power hold back in the ranks for very shame of treading where so many fools have rushed in.
For the one idea of the fakir the copyist and of the public which for the moment listens to him, is Clothes, Clothes, Clothes, first, last and always Clothes. Not Clothes only in the sense of doublet and gown, but Clothes of speech, Clothes of manner, Clothes of customs. Hear them expatiate over the fashion of wear ing a cuff, over a trick of speech, over the archi tecture of a house, the archeology of armour and the like.
It is all well enough in its way, but so easily dispensed with if there be flesh and The True Reward of the Novelist 17 blood underneath. Veronese put the people of his "Marriage at Cana" into the clothes of his contemporaries. Is the picture any less a masterpiece?
Do these Little People know that Scott s archeology was about one thousand years "out" in Ivanhoe, and that to make a paral lel we must conceive of a writer describing Richelieu say in small clothes and a top hat? But is it not Richelieu we want, and Ivanhoe, not their clothes, their armour? And in spite of his errors Scott gave us a real Ivanhoe.
He got beneath the clothes of an epoch and got the heart of it, and the spirit of it different essentially and vitally from ours or from every other, the spirit of feudalism ; and he put forth a masterpiece. The Little People so very precise in the matter of buttons and "bacinets" do not so. Take the clothes from the people of their Romances and one finds only wooden manikins. Take the clothes from the epoch of which they pretend to treat and what is there beneath? It is only the familiar, well-worn, well-thumbed nineteenth or twentieth century after all.
A poor taste, a cheap one ; the taste of serving- men, the literature of chambermaids. To approach the same subject by a different radius: why must the historical novel of the copyist always be conceived of in the terms of Romance? Could not the formula of Real ism be applied at least as well, not the Realism of mere externals the copyists have that , but the Realism of motives and emotions? What would we not give for a picture of the fifteenth century as precise and perfect as one of Mr. James s novels? Even if that be impossible, the attempt, even though half-way successful, would be worth while, would be better than the wooden manikin in the tin-pot helmet and baggy hose.
At least we should get some where, even if no farther than Mr. Kingsley took us in "Hereward," or Mr. Blackmore in "Lorna Doone. Great Heavens! There was some thing else sometimes than the soldier life. They were not always cutting and thrusting, not always night-riding, escaping, venturing, posing. The True Reward of the Novelist 19 Or suppose that cut-and-thrust must be the order of the day, where is the "man behind," and the heart in the man and the spirit in the heart and the essential vital, elemental, all- important true life within the spirit?
We are all Anglo-Saxons enough to enjoy the sight of a fight, would go a block or so out of the way to see one, or be a dollar or so out of pocket. But let it not be these jointed manikins worked with a thread. At least let it be Mr. Robert Fitzsimmons or Mr. James Jeffries. Clothes, paraphernalia, panoply, pomp and circumstance, and the copyist s public and the poor bedeviled, ink-corroded hack of an over driven, underpaid reviewer on an inland paper speak of the "vivid colouring" and "the fine picture of a bygone age" it is easy to be vivid with a pot of vermilion at the elbow.
Any one can scare a young dog with a false- face and a roaring voice, but to be vivid and use grays and browns, to scare the puppy with the lifted finger, that s something to the point.
The difficult thing is to get at the life imme diately around you the very life in which you move. No romance in it? No romance in you, poor fool. As much romance on Michigan Avenue as there is realism in King Arthur s court. It is as you choose to see it. The important thing to decide is, which formula is 2o The Responsibilities of the Novelist the best to help you grip the Real Life of this or any other age. Contemporaries always imagine that theirs is the prosaic age, and that chivalry and the picturesque died with their forbears.
No doubt Merlin mourned for the old time of romance. Cervantes held that romance was dead. Yet most of the historical romances of the day are laid in Cervantes s time, or even after it. Romance and Realism are constant qualities of every age, day and hour. They are here to-day. They existed in the time of Job.
They will continue to exist till the end of time, not so much in things as in point of view of the people who see things. The difficulty, then, is to get at the immediate life immensely difficult, for you are not only close to the canvas, but are yourself part of the picture. But the historic age is almost done to hand.
Let almost any one shut himself in his closet with a history and Violet LeDuc s Dictionaire du Mobilier and, given a few months time, he can evolve an historical novel of the kind called popular. He need not know men just clothes and lingo, the " what-ho-without-there " gabble. But if he only chose he could find romance and adventure in Wall Street or Bond Street.
But romance there does not wear the gay clothes The True Reward of the Novelist 21 and the showy accouterments, and to discover it the real romance of it means hard work and close study, not of books, but of people and actualities. Not only this, but to know the life around you you must live if not among people, then in people.
You must be something more than a novelist if you can, something more than just a writer. There must be that nameless sixth sense or sensibility in you that great musicians have in common with great inventors and great scientists; the thing that does not enter into the work, but that is back of it ; the thing that would make of you a good man as well as a good novelist ; the thing that differentiates the mere business man from the financier for it is possessed of the financier and poet alike so only they be big enough.
It is not genius, for genius is a lax, loose term so flippantly used that its expressiveness is long since lost. It is more akin to sincerity. And there once more we halt upon the great word sincerity, sincerity, and again sincerity. Let the writer attack his historical novel with sincerity and he cannot then do wrong.
He will see then the man beneath the clothes, and the heart beneath both, and he will be so amazed at the wonder of that sight that he will forget the clothes. His public will be small, 22 The Responsibilities of the Novelist perhaps, but he will have the better reward of the knowledge of a thing well done. Royalties on editions of hundreds of thousands will not pay him more to his satisfaction than that.
To make money is not the province of a novelist. If he is the right sort, he has other responsibili ties, heavy ones. He of all men cannot think only of himself or for himself. And when the last page is written and the ink crusts on the pen-point and the hungry presses go clashing after another writer, the "new man" and the new fashion of the hour, he will think of the grim long grind of the years of his life that he has put behind him and of his work that he has built up volume by volume, sincere work, telling the truth as he saw it, independent of fashion and the gallery gods, holding to these with gripped hands and shut teeth he will think of all this then, and he will be able to say : "I never truckled; I never took off the hat to Fashion and held it out for pennies.
By God, I told them the truth. They liked it or they didn t like it. What had that to do with me? I told them the truth; I knew it for the truth then, and I know it for the truth now. As though it were possible to write a novel without a purpose, even if it is only the pur pose to amuse. One is willing to admit that this savours a little of quibbling, for "pur pose" and purpose to amuse are two different purposes.
But every novel, even the most friv olous, must have some reason for the writing of it, and in that sense must have a "purpose. Some novels do all three of these; some do only two; all must do at least one. In this class comes the novel of adventure, such as "The Three Musketeers. In this class falls the novel of character, such as "Romola.
In this class falls the novel with the purpose, such as "Les Miserables. It must tell something, must narrate vigorous incidents and must show something, must penetrate deep into the motives and character of type- men, men who are composite pictures of a multitude of men. It must do this because of the nature of its subject, for it deals with elemental forces, motives that stir whole The Novel with a Purpose" 27 nations. These cannot be handled as abstrac tions in fiction. Fiction can find expression only in the concrete.
The elemental forces, then, contribute to the novel with a purpose to provide it with vigorous action. In the novel, force can be expressed in no other way. The social tendencies must be expressed by means of analysis of the characters of the men and women who compose that society, and the two must be combined and manipulated to evolve the purpose to find the value of x. The production of such a novel is probably the most arduous task that the writer of fiction can undertake.
Nowhere else is success more difficult ; nowhere else is failure so easy. Unskil fully treated, the story may dwindle down and degenerate into mere special pleading, and the novelist become a polemicist, a pamphleteer, forgetting that, although his first consideration is to prove his case, his means must be living human beings, not statistics, and that his tools are not figures, but pictures from life as he sees it. The novel with a purpose is, one contends, a preaching novel. But it preaches by telling things and showing things. Only, the author selects from the great storehouse of actual life the things to be told and the things to be shown, which shall bear upon his problem, his purpose.
The preaching, the moralizing, is 28 The Responsibilities of the Novelist the result not of direct appeal by the writer, but is made should be made to the reader by the very incidents of the story. But here is presented a strange anomaly, a distinction as subtle as it is vital. Just now one has said that in the composition of the Jcind of novel under consideration the purpose is for the novelist the all-important thing, and yet it is impossible to deny that the story, as a mere story, is to the story-writer the one great object of attention.
How reconcile then these two apparent contradictions? For the novelist, the purpose of his novel, the problem he is to solve, is to his story what the keynote is to the sonata. Though the musician cannot exaggerate the importance of the keynote, yet the thing that interests him is the sonata itself.
The keynote simply coordinates the music, systematizes it, brings all the myriad little rebellious notes under a single harmonious code. Thus, too, the purpose in the novel. It is important as an end and also as " an ever- present guide. For the writer it is as important only as a note to w r hich his work must be attuned. The moment, however, that the writer becomes really and vitally interested in his purpose his novel fails. Here is the strange anomaly. Let us suppose The Novel with a "Purpose" 29 that Hardy, say, should be engaged upon a story which had for purpose to show the injus tices under which the miners of Wales were suffering.
It is conceivable that he could write a story that would make the blood boil with indignation. But he himself, if he is to remain an artist, if he is to write his novel suc cessfully, will, as a novelist, care very little about the iniquitous labour system of the Welsh coal-mines. It will be to him as imper sonal a thing as the key is to the composer of a sonata.
As a man Hardy may or may not be vitally concerned in the Welsh coal-miner. That is quite unessential. But as a novelist, as an artist, his sufferings must be for him a matter of the mildest interest. They are important, for they constitute his keynote. They are not interesting for the reason that the working out of his story, its people, episodes, scenes and pictures, is for the moment the most interesting thing in all the world to him, exclusive of everything else.
Do you think that Mrs. Stowe was more interested in the slave question than she was in the writing of " Uncle Tom s Cabin"? Her book, her manuscript, the page-to-page progress of the narrative, were more absorbing to her than all the Negroes that were ever whipped or sold. Had it not 30 The Responsibilities of the Novelist been so, that great purpose-novel never would have succeeded. Consider the reverse "Fecondite," for in stance.
The purpose for which Zola wrote the book ran away with him. He really did care more for the depopulation of France than he did for his novel. Result sermons on the fruitfulness of women, special pleading, a far rago of dry, dull incidents, overburdened and collapsing under the weight of a theme that should have intruded only indirectly. This is preeminently a selfish view of the question, but it is assuredly the only correct one.
It must be remembered that the artist has a double personality, himself as a man, and himself as an artist. But, it will be urged, how account for the artist s sympathy in his fictitious characters, his emotion, the actual tears he sheds in telling of their griefs, their deaths, and the like? The answer is obvious. As an artist his sensitiveness is quickened because they are characters in his novel. It does not at all follow that the same artist would be moved to tears over the report of parallel catastrophes in real life.
As an artist, there is every reason to suppose he would welcome the news with downright pleasure. It would be for him "good material. Thus the artist. What he would do, how he would feel as a man is quite a different matter. To conclude, let us consider one objection urged against the novel with a purpose by the plain people who read.
For certain reasons, difficult to explain, the purpose novel always ends unhappily. It is usually a record of suffering, a relation of tragedy. And the plain people say, "Ah, we see so much suffering in the world, why put it into novels? We do not want it in novels.
Is this really true? The people who buy novels are the well-to-do people. They belong to a class whose whole scheme of life is concerned solely with an aim to avoid the unpleasant. Suffer ing, the great catastrophes, the social throes, that annihilate whole communities, or that crush even isolated individuals all these are as far removed from them as earthquakes and tidal-waves. Or, even if it were so, suppose that by some miracle these blind eyes were opened and the sufferings of the poor, the tragedies of the house around the corner, really were laid bare.
If there is much pain in life, all the more reason that it should appear 32 The Responsibilities of the Novelist in a class of literature which, in its highest form, is a sincere transcription of life. It is the complaint of the coward, this cry against the novel with a purpose, because it brings the tragedies and griefs of others to notice. Take this element from fiction, take from it the power and opportunity to prove that injustice, crime and inequality do exist, and what is left? Just the amusing novels, the novels that entertain.
The juggler in spangles, with his balancing-pole and gilt ball, does this. You may consider the modern novel from this point of view. It may be a flippant paper-covered thing of swords and cloaks, to be carried on a railway journey and to be thrown out the window when read, together with the sucked oranges and peanut shells. Or it may be a great force, that works together with the pulpit and the universi ties for the good of the people, fearlessly prov ing that power is abused, that the strong grind the faces of the weak, that an evil tree is still growing in the midst of the garden, that undoing follows hard upon unrighteousness, that the course of Empire is not yet finished, and that the races of men have yet to work out their destiny in those great and terrible move ments that crush and grind and rend asunder the pillars of the houses of the nations.
The Novel with a "Purpose" 33 Fiction may keep pace with the Great March, but it will not be by dint of amusing the people.
The muse is a teacher, not a trickster. Her rightful place is with the leaders, but in the last analysis that place is to be attained and maintained not by cap-and- bells, but because of a serious and sincere interest, such as inspires the great teachers, the great divines, the great philosophers, a well-defined, well-seen, courageously sought-for purpose.
NOVELISTS TT is a thing accepted and indisputable that a story-teller is a novelist, but it has often occurred to one that the reverse is not always true and that the novelist is not of necessity a story-teller. The distinction is perhaps a delicate one, but for all that it seems to be decisive, and it is quite possible that with the distinction in mind a different judg ment might be passed upon a very large part of present-day fiction. It would even be entertaining to apply the classification to the products of the standard authors.
The story-telling instinct seems to be a gift, whereas we trend to the heretical the art of composing novels using the word in appo sition to stories, long or short may be an acquirement. The one is an endowment, the other an accomplishment. Accordingly throughout the following paragraphs the expres sion, novelists of composition, for the time being will be used technically, and will be applied to those fiction-writers who have not the story-telling faculty. It would not be fair to attempt a proof that 37 38 The Responsibilities of the Novelist the one is better or worse than the other.
The difference is surely of kind and not of degree. One will only seek to establish the fact that certain eminent and brilliant novel- writers are quite bereft of a sense of fiction, that some of them have succeeded in spite of this deficiency, and that other novel-writers possessing this sense of fiction have succeeded because of it, and in spite of many drawbacks such as lack of training and of education. It is a proposition which one believes to be capable of demonstration that every child con tains in himself the elements of every known profession, every occupation, every art, every industry.
In the five-year-old you may see glimpses of the soldier, trader, farmer, painter, musician, builder, and so on to the end of the roster. Later, circumstances produce the atrophy of all of these instincts but one, and from that one specialized comes the career. Thus every healthy-minded child no matter if he develops in later years to be financier or boot-maker is a story-teller.
As soon as he begins to talk he tells stories. Witness the holocausts and carnage of the leaden platoons of the nursery table, the cataclysms of the Grand Trans-Continental Playroom and Front- Hall Railroad system. This, though, is not real story-telling. The toys practically tell Story-tellers vs. Novelists 39 the story for him and are no stimulant to the imagination. However, the child goes beyond the toys. He dramatizes every object of his surroundings. The books of the library shelves are files of soldiers, the rugs are isles in the seaway of the floor, the easy chair is a comfortable old gentleman holding out his arms, the sofa a private brig or a Baldwin locomotive, and the child creates of his sur roundings an entire and complex work of fiction of which he is at one and the same time hero, author and public.
Within the heart of every mature human being, not a writer of fiction, there is the withered remains of a little story-teller who died very young. And the love of good fiction and the appreciation of a fine novel in the man of the world of riper years is I like to think a sort of memorial tribute which he pays to his little dead playmate of so very long ago, who died very quietly with his little broken tin locomotive in his hands on the cruel day when he w r oke to the realization that it had outlived its usefulness and its charm. Even in the heart of some accepted and successful fiction-writer you shall find this little dead story-teller.
These are the novelists of composition, whose sense of fiction, under stress of circumstances, has become so blunted 40 The Responsibilities of the Novelist that when they come at last to full maturity and to the power of using the faculty they can no longer command it. These are novelists rather of intellect than of spontaneous improvisation ; and all the force of their spendid minds, every faculty other than the lost fiction-faculty, must be brought into play to compensate for the lack.
Some more than compensate for it, so prodigal in resource, so persistent in effort, so powerful in energy and in fertility of inven tion, that as it were by main strength they triumph over the other writer, the natural story-teller, from whose pen the book flows with almost no effort at all. Of this sort the novelists of intellect, in whom the born story-teller is extinct, the novelists of composition in a word the great example, it would seem, is George Eliot.
It was by taking thought that the author of "Romola" added to her stature. The result is superb, but achieved at what infinite pains, with what colossal labour of head rather than of the heart! She did not feel, she knew, and to attain that knowledge what effort had to be expended! Even all her art cannot exclude from her pages evidences of the labour, of the superhuman toil. And it was labour and toil for what?
To get back, through years of sophistication, of solemn education, Story-tellers vs. Novelists 41 of worldly wisdom, back again to the point of view of the little lost child of the doll-house days. But sometimes the little story-teller does not die, but lives on and grows with the man, increasing in favour with God, till at last he dominates the man himself, and the playroom of the old days simply widens its walls till it includes the street outside, and the street beyond and other streets, the whole city, the whole world, and the story-teller discovers a set of new toys to play with, and new objects of a measureless environment to dramatize about, and in exactly, exactly the same spirit in which he trundled his tin train through the halls and shouted boarding orders from the sofa he moves now through the world s play room "making up stories"; only now his heroes and his public are outside himself and he alone may play the author.
For him there is but little effort required. He has a sense of -fiction. Every instant of his day he is dramatizing. The cable-car has for him a distinct personality. Every window in the residence quarters is an eye to the soul of the house behind. The very lamp-post on the corner, burning on through the night and through the storm, is a soldier, dutiful, vigilant in stress.
A ship is Adventure; an engine 42 The Responsibilities of the Novelist a living brute ; and the easy chair of his library is still the same comfortable and kindly old gentleman holding out his arms. The men and women of his world are not apt to be to him so important in themselves as in relation to the whirl of things in which he chooses to involve them.
They cause events, or else events happen to them, and by an unreasoned instinct the story-teller pre serves the consistencies just as the child would not have run the lines of the hall railway across the seaway of the floor between the rugs. Much thought is not necessary to him. Production is facile, a constant pleasure. The story runs from his pen almost of itself; it takes this shape or that, he knows not why; his people do this or that and by some blessed system of guesswork they are somehow always plausible and true to life.
His work is hap hazard, yet in the end and in the main tremen dously probable. Devil-may-care, slipshod, melodramatic, but invincibly persuasive, he uses his heart, his senses, his emotions, every faculty but that of the intellect. He does not know; he feels. Only the Frenchman had a sense of fiction Story-tellers vs. Novelists 43 which the Englishwoman had not. Her novels are character studies, are portraits, are por trayals of emotions or pictures of certain times and certain events, are everything you choose, but they are not stories, and no stretch of the imagination, no liberalness of criticism can make them such.
She succeeded by dint of effort where the Frenchman merely wrote. George Eliot compensated for the defect arti ficially and succeeded eminently and conclu sively, but there are not found wanting cases in modern literature where "novelists of com position" have not compensated beyond a very justifiable doubt, and where, had they but re joiced in a very small modicum of this dowry of the gods, their work would have been to one s notion infinitely improved.
As, for instance, Tolstoi ; incontestably great though he be, all his unquestioned power has never yet won for him that same vivid sense of fiction enjoyed by so comparatively unim portant a writer as the author of "Sherlock Holmes. Doyle the securer if not the higher place, despite the magnificent genius of the novelist.
In the austere Russian gloomy, sad, ac quainted with grief the child died irrevoca- 44 The Responsibilities of the Novelist bly long, long ago ; and no power however vast, no wisdom however profound, no effort how ever earnest, can turn one wheel on the little locomotive of battered tin or send it one inch along the old right-of-way between the nursery and the front room.
One cannot but feel that the great author of "Anna Karenina" realizes as much as his readers the limitations that the loss of this untainted childishness imposes. The power was all his, the wonderful intellectual grip, but not the fiction spirit the child s knack and love of "making up stories. The perfect novel! No doubt, clearer than all others, the great Russian sees the partial failure of his work, and no doubt keener and deeper than all others sees that, unless the child-vision and the child-pleasure be present to guide and to stimu late, the entrances of the kingdom must stay forever shut to those who would enter, storm they the gates never so mightily and beat they never so clamorously at the doors.
Whatever the end of fiction may be, what ever the reward and recompense bestowed, whatever object is gained by good work, the end will not be gained, nor the reward won, nor the object attained by force alone by strength of will or of mind. Without the Story-tellers vs. Novelists 45 auxiliary of the little playmate of the old days the great doors that stand at the end of the road will stay forever shut.
Look once, how ever, with the child s eyes, or for once touch the mighty valves with the child s hand, and Heaven itself lies open with all its manifold wonders. So that in the end, after all trial has been made and every expedient tested, the simplest way is the best and the humblest means the surest. A little child stands in the midst of the wise men and the learned, and their wis dom and their learning are set aside and they are taught that unless they become as one of these they shall in nowise enter into the Kingdom of Heaven.
For is it not a fact, that he who asks that question must himself find the answer, and that not even one sent from Heaven can be of hope or help to him if he is not willing to go down into his own heart and into his own life to find it? To sermonize, to elaborate a disquisition on nice distinctions of metaphysics is not appro priate here.
But it is so one believes appropriate to consider a certain very large class of present day novelists of the United States who seldom are stirred by that spirit of inquiry that for a moment disturbed the Roman, who do not ask what is truth, who do not in fact care to be truthful at all, and who and this is the serious side of the business are bringing the name of American literature perilously near to disrepute. One does not quarrel for one instant with the fact that certain books of the writers in question have attained phenomenally large circulations.
This is as it should be. There 49 50 The Responsibilities of the Novelist are very many people in the United States, and compared with such a figure as seventy million, a mere hundred thousand of books sold is no great matter. But here so it seems is the point. He who can address a hundred thousand people is, no matter what his message may be, in an important position. It is a large audience, one hundred thousand, larger than any roofed building now standing could contain.
Less than one one-hundredth part of that number nominated Lincoln. Less than half of it won Waterloo. And it must be remembered that for every one person who buys a book there are three who will read it and half a dozen who will read what some one else has written about it, so that the sphere of influence widens indefinitely, and the audience that the writer addresses approaches the half -million mark.
Well and good; but if the audience is so vast, if the influence is so far-reaching, if the example set is so contagious, it becomes incum bent to ask, it becomes imperative to demand that the half -million shall be told the truth and not a lie. And this thing called truth what is it? If truth is not an actual workaday thing, as concrete as the lamp-post on the corner, as practical as a cable-car, as real and homely and workaday and commonplace as a bootjack, then indeed are we of all men most miserable and our preaching vain.
And truth in fiction is just as real and just as important as truth anywhere else as in Wall Street, for instance. A man who does not tell the truth there, and who puts the untruth upon paper over his signature, will be very promptly jailed. But the untruth ful novelist who starts in motion something like half a million dollars invokes not fear nor yet reproach. If truth in the matter of the producing of novels is not an elusive, intangible abstraction, what, then, is it? Let us get at the hard nub of the business, something we can hold in the hand.
It is the thing that is one s own, the discovery of a subject suitable for fictitious narration that has never yet been treated, and the conscientious study of that subject and the fair presentation of results. Not a difficult matter, it would appear, not an abstraction, not 52 The Responsibilities of the Novelist a philosophical kink.
Newspaper reporters, who are not metaphysicians, unnamed, unre warded, despised, even, and hooted and hounded, are doing this every day. They do it on a meager salary, and they call the affair a "scoop. Hard to be original! Go out into the street and stand where the ways cross and hear the machinery of life work clashing in its grooves. Can the utmost resort of your ingenuity evolve a better story than any one of the millions that jog your elbow? Shut yourself in your closet and turn your eyes inward upon yourself deep into yourself, down, down into the heart of you; The Need of a Literary Conscience 53 and the tread of the feet upon the pavement is the systole and diastole of your own being different only in degree.
It is life; and it is that which you must have to make your book, your novel life, not other people s novels. Or look from your window. A whole Lit erature goes marching by, clamouring for a leader and a master hand to guide it. You have but to step from your doorway.
And instead of this, instead of entering into the leadership that is yours by right divine, instead of this, you must toilfully, painfully endeavour to crawl into the armour of the chief of some other cause, the harness of the leader of some other progress. But you will not fit into that panoply. You may never brace that buckler upon your arm, for by your very act you stand revealed as a littler man than he who should be chief a littler man and a weaker; and the casque will fall so far over your face that it will only blind you, and the sword will trip you, and the lance, too ponderous, will falter in your grip, and all that life which surges and thun ders behind you will in time know you to be the false leader, and as you stumble will trample you in its onrush, and leave you dead and for gotten upon the road.
And just as a misconception of the truth 54 The Responsibilities of the Novelist makes of this the simplest and homeliest of things, a vagary, an abstraction and a bugbear, so it is possible that a misconception of the Leader creates the picture of a great and dreadful figure wrapped in majesty, solemn and profound. So that perhaps for very lack of self-confidence, for very diffidence, one shrinks from lifting the sword of him and from enduing one s forehead with the casque that seems so ponderous.
In other causes no doubt the leader must be chosen from the wise and great. In science and finance one looks to him to be a strong man, a swift and a sure man. But the litera ture that to-day shouts all in vain for its chief needs no such a one as this. Here the battle is not to the strong nor yet the race to the swift.
Here the leader is no vast, stern being, profound, solemn, knowing all things, but, on the contrary, is as humble as the lowliest that follow after him. So that it need not be hard to step into that place of eminence. Not by arrogance, nor by assumption, nor by the achievement of the world s wisdom, shall you be made worthy of the place of high command.
But it will come to you, if it comes at all, because you shall have kept yourself young and humble and pure in heart, and so unspoiled and unwearied and unjaded that you shall find a joy in the mere The Need of a Literary Conscience 55 rising of the sun, a wholesome, sane delight in the sound of the wind at night, a pleasure in the sight of the hills at evening, shall see God in a little child and a whole religion in a brood ing bird.
The westward- moving course of empire has at last crossed the Pacific Ocean. Civilization has circled the globe and has come back to its starting point, the vague and mysterious East. The thing has not been accomplished peace fully. From the very first it has been an affair of wars of invasions. Invasions of the East by the West, and of raids North and South- raids accomplished by flying columns that dashed out from both sides of the main army.
Sometimes even the invaders have fought among themselves, as for instance the Trojan War, or the civil wars of Italy, England and America; sometimes they have turned back on their tracks and, upon one pretext or another, reconquered the races behind them, as for instance Alexander s wars to the eastward, the Crusades, and Napoleon s Egyptian campaigns. Retarded by all these obstacles, the march has been painfully slow. To move from Egypt to Greece took centuries of time.
More 59 60 Tke Responsibilities of the Novelist centuries were consumed in the campaign that brought empire from Greece to Rome, and still more centuries passed before it crossed the Alps and invaded northern and western Europe. But observe. Once across the Mississippi, the West our Far West was conquered in about forty years. In all the vast campaign from east to west here is the most signal vic tory, the swiftest, the completest, the most brilliant achievement the wilderness subdued at a single stroke.
Now all these various fightings to the westward, these mysterious race-movements, migrations, wars and wanderings have pro duced their literature, distinctive, peculiar, excellent. And this literature we call epic. Absurd he may be in his ideas of life and character, the art in him veneered over with charlatanism; yet the man was solemn enough and took his work seriously, and his work is literature. Also a cycle of romance has grown up around the Civil War.
The theme has had its poets to whom the public have been glad to listen. The subject is vast, noble ; is, in a word, epic, just as the Trojan War and the Retreat of the Ten Thousand were epic. But when at last one comes to look for the literature that sprang from and has grown up around the last great epic event in the history of civilization, the event which in spite of stupendous difficulties was consum mated more swiftly, more completely, more satisfactorily than any like event since the westward migration began I mean the con quering of the West, the subduing of the wilderness beyond the Mississippi What has this produced in the way of literature?
The dime novel! The dime novel and nothing else. The dime novel and nothing better. The Trojan War left to posterity the charac ter of Hector ; the wars with the Saracens gave 62 The Responsibilities of the Novelist us Roland; the folklore of Iceland produced Grettir ; the Scotch border poetry brought forth the Douglas; the Spanish epic the Cid. But the American epic, just as heroic, just as ele mental, just as important and as picturesque, will fade into history leaving behind no finer type, no nobler hero than Buffalo Bill. In the feudal castles the minstrel sang to the young boys, of Roland.
The farm folk of Iceland to this very day treasure up and read to their little ones hand-written copies of the Gretla Saga chronicling the deeds and death of Grettir the Strong. But the youth of the United States learn of their epic by paying a dollar to see the " Wild West Show. One man who wrote "How Santa Claus Came to Simpson s Bar" one poet, one chronicler did, in fact, arise for the moment, who understood that wild, brave life and who for a time gave promise of bearing record of things seen.
One of the requirements of an epic a true epic is that its action must devolve upon some great national event. There was no lack of such in those fierce years after Just that long and terrible journey from the Mississippi to the ocean is an epic in itself. Yet no serious attempt has ever been made by an American author to render into prose or verse this event in our history as "national" in scope, in origin and in results as the Revolution itself. The prairie schooner is as large a figure in the legends as the black ship that bore Ulysses homeward from Troy.
The sea meant as much to the Argonauts of the fifties as it did to the ten thousand. And the Alamo! There is a trumpet-call in the word; and only the look of it on the printed page is a flash of fire. But the very histories slight the deed, and to many an 64 The Responsibilities of the Novelist American, born under the same flag that the Mexican rifles shot to ribbons on that splendid day, the word is meaningless. Yet Thermopylae was less glorious, and in comparison with that siege the investment of Troy was mere wanton riot.
At the very least the Texans in that battered adobe church fought for the honour of their flag and the greater glory of their country, not for loot or the possession of the person of an adult ress. Young men are taught to consider the " Iliad, " with its butcheries, its glorification of inordinate selfishness and vanity, as a classic. Achilles, murderer, egoist, ruffian and liar, is a hero.
But the name of Bowie, the name of the man who gave his life to his flag at the Alamo, is perpetuated only in the designation of a knife. Crockett is the hero only of a " funny story " about a sagacious coon ; while Travis, the boy commander who did what Gordon with an empire back of him failed to do, is quietly and definitely ignored.
Because we have done nothing to get at the truth about the West ; because our best writers have turned to the old-country folklore and legends for their inspiration; because "melan choly harlequins" strut in fringed leggings upon the street-corners, one hand held out for pennies, we have come to believe that our West, our epic, was an affair of Indians, road-agents A Neglected Epic 65 and desperadoes, and have taken no account of the brave men who stood for law and justice and liberty, and for those great ideas died by the hundreds, unknown and unsung died that the West might be subdued, that the last stage of the march should be accomplished, that the Anglo-Saxon should fulfil his destiny and complete the cycle of the world.
The great figure of our neglected epic, the Hector of our ignored Iliad, is not, as the dime novels would have us believe, a lawbreaker, but a lawmaker; a fighter, it is true, as is always the case with epic figures, but a fighter for peace, a calm, grave, strong man who hated the lawbreaker as the hound hates the wolf. He did not lounge in barrooms; he did not cheat at cards; he did not drink himself to maudlin fury; he did not " shoot at the drop of the hat. For hypocrisy and pretense, for shams and subter fuges he had no mercy, no tolerance.
He was too brave to lie and too strong to steal. The odds in that lawless day were ever against him; his enemies were many and his friends were few; but his face was always set bravely 66 The Responsibilities of the Novelist against evil, and fear was not in him even at the end. For such a man as this could die no quiet death in a land where law went no further than the statute books and lite lay in the crook of my neighbour s forefinger. He died in defense of an ideal, an epic hero, a legendary figure, formidable, sad.
He died facing down injustice, dishonesty and crime; died "in his boots"; and the same world that has glorified Achilles and forgotten Travis finds none too poor to do him reverence. No literature has sprung up around him this great character native to America. He is of all the world-types the one distinctive to us peculiar, particular and unique. He is dead and even his work is misinterpreted and mis understood. His very memory will soon be gone, and the American epic, which, on the shelves of posterity, should have stood shoulder to shoulder with the " Hemskringla " and the " Tales of the Nibelungen" and the "Song of Roland," will never be written.