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[198]

XXIV

The test of the dime novel

no work of fiction ever published in London, the newspapers say, received so many advance orders as greeted a late story by Mr. Haggard. It is a curious illustration of the difference between the current literary tendencies of England and America, that in the mother-country alone are authors of this type taken seriously. The sale of their works is often larger here than in England, for the same reason which makes the combined circulation of daily newspapers so much larger; but they are no more considered as forming a part of literature than one would include in a ‘History of the Drama’ some sworn statement as to the number of tickets sold for a Christmas pantomime. When a certain Mr. Mansfield Tracy Walworth was murdered near New York, a few years ago, it came out incidentally that he had written a novel called ‘Warwick,’ of which seventy-five thousand copies had been [199] sold, and another called ‘Delaplaine,’ that had gone up to forty-five thousand. Another author of the same school, known as ‘Ned Buntline,’ is said to have earned sixty thousand dollars in a single year by his efforts; and still another, Sylvanus Cobb, Jr., is known to have habitually received a salary of ten thousand dollars for publications equally popular. No community can do without such books, but in America they are not usually counted as literature. Their authors scarcely obtain even the cheap immortality of the encyclopaedia. Such books are innocent enough; they are simply harmless weeds that grow up wherever the soil is rich, and sometimes where it is barren; science must catalogue them impartially, but they are not reckoned as a part of the horticultural product. The peculiarity is, that in England Mr. Haggard's crop of weeds is counted into the harvest; his preposterous plots are gravely discussed, compared, and criticised; he is himself admitted into the Contemporary Review as a valued contributor; Mr. Lang writes books with him; his success lies not merely in his publisher's balance, like [200] that of Mr. Walworth, Mr. Cobb, or ‘Ned Buntline,’ but it is a succes d'estime.

When, on the other hand, one opens an American daily paper to see what is said about the latest Haggard publication, one is likely to happen upon something like this: ‘We grudge it the few necessary lines . . . The illustrations are worthy of what they illustrate, and a second-rate imagination runs riot in pictures and text.’ Even this, perhaps, is giving too much space to the matter; but even if a London critic wished to say just this, he would say it on such a scale as if he were discussing a posthumous work by George Eliot. This difference is the more to be noticed because there was surely a time when the externals of good writing, at least, were held in high esteem at London; and the critics of that metropolis were wont to give but short shrift to any book which disregarded those conditions. But that which practically excludes Mr. Haggard from the ranks of serious and accredited writers is not that his sentiment is melodramatic, his fancy vulgar, and his situations absurd; the more elementary ground of exclusion is that he [201] makes fritters of English. It is hard for criticism to deal seriously with a novelist who writes: ‘It is us;’ ‘He . . . read on like some one reads in some ghastly dream;’ ‘Jacobus . . . whom was exceedingly sick;’ ‘So that was where they were being taken to;’ and the like. In the Contemporary Review his style seems to have been revised editorially, and we find nothing worse than such slang phrases as ‘played out,’ though this is certainly bad enough. If a man in decent society should place his feet upon the table but once, his standing would be as effectually determined as if his offences had been seventy times seven.

Now, whatever may be said of current tendencies it American literature, it may at least be claimed that our leading novelists do not tilt back their chairs or put their feet upon the table. Mr. Howells, for instance, has his defects, and may be proceeding, just now, upon a theory too narrow; but it is impossible to deny that he recognizes the minor morals of literary art. His sentences hold well together; he does not gush, does not straggle, gives no [202] passages of mere twaddle. He does not, like William Black, catch the same salmon over again so many times in a single story, and with such ever-increasing fulness of detail, that Izaak Walton himself would at last be bored into an impulse of forbearance; he does not, like Clark Russell, keep his heroine for nearly a year running about half-clothed over scorching rocks upon a tropical island, and then go into raptures over the dazzling whiteness of her bosom. So in the use of language, Howells does not, like Hardy, write ‘tactical observation’ where he means ‘tactful;’ or, like Haggard, say ‘those sort of reflections.’ It is a curious thing that on the very points where America formerly went to school to England, we should now have to praise our own authors for setting a decent example.

Can it be that, as time goes on, the habit of careful writing is one day to be set aside carelessly, as a mere American whim? In Professor Bain's essay ‘On Teaching English, with Detailed Examples’ one finds such phrases on the part of the author as ‘Sixty themes or thereby are handled in these pages’ (p. 38), [203] and ‘The whole of the instruction in higher English might be overtaken in such a course’ (p. 48); the italics being my own. If such are the ‘detailed examples’ given by professional teachers in England, what is to become of the followers? It is encouraging, perhaps, to see that the prolonged American resistance to the Anglicism ‘different to’ may be having a little reflex influence, when the Spectator describes Tennyson's second ‘Locksley Hall’ as being ‘different from’ his first. The influence is less favorable when we find one of the most local and illiterate of American colloquialisms reappearing in the Pall Mall Gazette, where it says: ‘Even Mr. Sala is better known, we expect, for his half-dozen books,’ etc. But the most repellent things one sees in English books, in the way of language, are the coarsenesses for which no American is responsible, as when in the graceful writings of Juliana Ewing the reader comes upon the words ‘stinking’ or ‘nigger.’ This last offensive word is also invariably used by Froude in ‘Oceana.’ Granting that taste and decorum are less important than logic and precision, it [204] seems as if even these last qualities must have become a little impaired when we read in the Saturday Review such curious lapses as this: ‘At home we have only the infinitely little, the speeches of infinitesimal members of Parliament. . . . In America matters yet more minute occupy the press.’ More minute than the infinitely little and the infinitesimal!

It will be a matter of deep regret to all thoughtful Americans should there ever be a distinct lowering of the standard of literary workmanship in England. The different branches of the English-speaking race are mutually dependent; they read each other's books; they need to co-operate in keeping up the common standard. It is too much to ask of any single nation that it should do this alone. Can it be that the real source of the change, if it is actually in progress, may be social rather than literary? It is conceivable that the higher status of the dime novel in England may be simply a part of that reversion toward a lower standard which grows naturally out of an essentially artificial social structure. Is it possible that some strange and abnormal [205] results should not follow where one man is raised to the peerage because he is a successful brewer, and another because he is Alfred Tennyson? No dozen poets or statesmen, it is said, would have been so mourned in England as was Archer the jockey; nor did Holmes or Lowell have a London success so overpowering as that of ‘Buffalo Bill.’ In a community which thus selects its heroes, why should not the highest of all wreaths of triumph be given to Mr. Haggard's Umslopagaas, ‘that dreadful-looking, splendid savage’?

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