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Chapter 8: local fiction

The writer can remember when people habitually spoke of the Waverley Novels as “the Scotch novels,” and now we all speak of the Scotch novels again. It is a refreshing bit of sanity, after various literary whims and extremes, to find a bit of wholesome local life, such as Ian Maclaren gives us, holding its own month after month in popularity at the book — stalls. There has been a curious analogy in the experience of Scottish and New England fiction. Both representing a rugged soil and a severely simple life, with a dialect supposed in both cases to be wholly unavailable for fiction, both have turned out to represent a nearly inexhaustible material-more available, in each case, the more it was worked. This is probably the case with any soil, at least any which is tolerably homogeneous and simple. The deeper you dig, the more you find. [61] Probably any one village would afford material for a whole series of Waverley Novels, could it only be thoroughly explored. But at the same time the description must not be mere description; it must reach those deep springs of human motive which are the same everywhere. Aiming at this, and in sympathy with these strong motives, each author will find something of his own. No two Scotch parishes are alike, at least if one is painted by Barrie and the other by Ian Maclaren; nor any three New England hamlets if painted respectively by Sarah Orne Jewett, Mary Wilkins, and Alice Brown. Miss Jewett will find in hers an element of higher breeding and more refined living. Her people will be more influenced by sentiment, perhaps sometimes too much so. Miss Wilkins's people will be wonders of keen delineation, but their life will be grim-sometimes too grim. Undoubtedly the whole life of New England seems to all English readers much more stern and sombre than it is, because of her delineations; just as all Americans form a highly exaggerated impression of the good looks of the English people because of Du Maurier's pictures in Punch. The latest New England story-teller, Miss Alice Brown, is in a fair way to rank as the best [62] of the three, because the widest, mellowest, and most genial. Her tales smack of the soil in the last degree, and yet leave an impression of wholesome enjoyment of life. In fact, one of her favorite adverbs is “happily” --“Miss Lucinda went happily along.”

Probably all these authors have had the curious experience, common to all realistic artists, of first creating their types out of the imagination, and then hearing of real people who have done just the things which the writers had assumed that they would do. The late Rev. Dr. Andrew P. Peabody once stopped me in the street to ask if Miss Wilkins had not lived in girlhood in a certain Massachusetts village, which he mentioned, but of which I had never heard. I doubted the fact, but he was very confident that it was so. He had, it seems, attended school in that village, and had found in her stories several legends which he had heard there as a boy. Telling this afterwards to the lady herself, I was assured that she had never been near the place, and had scarcely even heard of it. Miss Alice Brown, writing her delightful sketch called “Heart's-ease,” describes Miss Lucinda, who, after a lifetime of bondage to her stern father, the Judge, is released by his death, and plunges [63] immediately into the wild delights, before prohibited, of riding on horseback and wearing flowers in her bonnet. Miss Brown, after writing this, heard for the first time of another maiden lady-also the daughter of a very repressive judge — who celebrated a similar emancipation by immediately taking music lessons and studying French, she having been prohibited these indulgences up to the age of fifty. In the same way, since she imagined the two old ladies in the alms-house who divided their joint room by a chalk-line and made calls on each other, she is said to have encountered old ladies who could name the very house where the thing occurred; and after writing “Told in the poorhouse,” she was informed that the estranged couple were still living. In truth, the writer of realistic fiction must boldly write not merely what has been actually seen, but what might have been seen — as the artist Stuart painted for the newly enriched Irishman the ancestors he ought to have had.

In the course of time, by studying faithfully any type of character, we learn more and more about it, and can eclipse all earlier pictures by greater truthfulness. Cooper bewitched the world by his heroic and imaginative Indian [64] braves; then for years it was the custom to deride his Indians as utterly fictitious creations. Now comes Alice Fletcher, and by the arduous process of living among the Indians, studying their rites, and learning their traditions, shows them to have been, in the original and unspoiled condition, more imaginative, more picturesque, more worthy of study, than any Indians of whom Cooper dreamed. The labors of many authors, in all parts of our vast country, are gradually putting on record a wide range of local types. As a rule, however, it is the less educated classes which are more easily drawn, though not necessarily or always the most worth drawing. Hence we are acquiring a gallery of rustic groups spread over the continent, while the traditions of polish and refinement are ignored either for want of personal experience or of skill. Unluckily, the writer who has succeeded with village life always wishes to deal with more artificial society. It is as inevitable as the yearning of every good amateur comedian to act Shakespeare. Bret Harte and his successor, Hamlin Garland, handle admirably the types they knew in early life, but the moment they attempt to delineate a highly bred woman the curtain rises on a creaking doll in [65] starched petticoats. Few, indeed, of our authors can venture to portray, what would seem not so impossible, an every-day gentleman or lady. But Miss Jewett can produce types of the old New England gentry, dwelling perhaps in the quietest of country towns, yet incapable of any act which is not dignified or gracious; and Miss Viola Roseboro can depict an old Southern lady, living in a cheap New York boarding-house, toiling her life away to pay her brother's or her father's debts, and yet so exquisite in all her ways that the very page which describes her seems to exhale a delicate odor as of faded jasmine.


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