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Carl Van Doren (1885–1950). The American Novel. 1921.

Chapter 5. Blood and Tears

ALTHOUGH Hawthorne’s example subsequently exercised, notably upon Howells and Henry James but also upon various slighter figures, a spell which no one of them could either justify by wielding it or escape without a struggle, during his lifetime his serious and noble art was unimportantly heeded by his fellow-craftsmen. Nor did he seem to the wide public which had come to read novels anything like so eminent in the years between The Scarlet Letter and the outbreak of the Civil War as he seems when looked at from the twentieth century. Heavier and louder weapons than his were needed to break down the habits which for thirty years had led American novelists to write and American readers to expect tales of adventure and external events. It was a new school of sentimentalists who, beginning about 1850, advanced with a tearful rush, brandishing those weapons in soft but effective hands.

The romance of the immediate school of Cooper did not die without a struggle, though it had indeed fallen into disuse among most writers of capacity at the time of his death and was rapidly descending into the hands of fertile hacks who for fifty years were to hold an immense audience without deserving more than the barest history. In that very year (1851) Robert Bonner bought the New York Ledger and began to make it the congenial home and the hospitable patron of a sensationalism which had been growing upon native romance as its earlier energy had gradually departed from it. Hitherto most nearly anticipated by such a son of blood-and-thunder as Joseph Holt Ingraham, author of Lafitte; or The Pirate of the Gulf (1836), or by the swashbuckling Ned Buntline, duelist, sportsman, and perfervid patriot, this sensationalism reached unsurpassable dimensions with the prolific Sylvanus Cobb, Jr., who besides The Gunmaker of Moscow (1856) counted his successes in this department of literature by scores. From the Ledger no step in advance had to be taken by the inventors of the “dime novel,” which was started upon its long career by the publishing firm of Beadle and Adams of New York in 1860. Edward S. Ellis’s Seth Jones or the Captive of the Frontier (1860), one of the earliest of the sort, its hero formerly a scout under Ethan Allen but now adventuring in western New York, is said to have sold over 600,000 copies in half a dozen languages. The type prospered, depending almost exclusively upon native authors and native material: first the old frontier of Cooper and then the trans-Mississippi region, with its Mexicans, its bandits, its troopers, and its Indians, who have now for the most part lost the high courtesy of Cooper’s and are displayed in the bitter spirit which prompted that Western saying that the only good Indian is a dead Indian. Among the actual heroes of this adventurous world the men who achieved a primacy like that of Daniel Boone among the older order of scouts were Kit Carson, the famous scout, and “Buffalo Bill” (William F. Cody), who was first put on the stage by the intrepid Ned Buntline and later capitalized his own personality and reputation in the circus which exhibited its microcosm of the Wild West round the world. The dime novels which suggested such an enterprise, and in turn were furthered by it, were cheap, conventional, hasty—Albert W. Aiken long averaged one a week, and Prentiss Ingraham produced in all over six hundred—but they were exciting, full of incident and innocence, and scrupulously devoted to the popular doctrines of poetic justice. What they lacked was all distinction except that of a rough abundance of invention, and Frank Norris could justly grieve that the epic days of Western settlement found only such tawdry Homers. A Scott or a Cooper for those days is yet to come. In the fourth decade of the century the detective story rivaled the frontier tale, for the West was filling up and the juvenile imagination, to which the older tales had been addressed, was now turning to the towns. After 1900, both kinds, though reduced to the price of five cents a copy, gave way before the still more exciting and more easily comprehended moving picture.

It is true that one successor of Cooper upheld for a time the dignity of the old-fashioned romance. John Esten Cooke (1830–86), born in the Shenandoah Valley and brought up in Richmond, cherished a passion as intense as Simms’s for his native state and deliberately set out to celebrate its past and its beauty. Leather Stocking and Silk (1854) and The Last of the Foresters (1856), both narratives of life in the Valley, recall Cooper by more than their titles; but in The Youth of Jefferson (1854) and its sequel, Henry St. John, Gentleman (1859), Cooke seems as completely Virginian as Beverley Tucker before him, though less stately in his tread. All three of these novels have their scenes laid in Williamsburg, the old capital of the Dominion; they reproduce a society strangely made up of luxury, daintiness, elegance, penury, ugliness, brutality. At times the dialogue of Cooke’s impetuous cavaliers and merry girls nearly catches the flavor of the Forest of Arden, but there is generally something stilted in their speech or behavior that spoils the gay illusion. Nevertheless, The Virginia Comedians (1854) may justly be called the best Virginia novel of the old régime, unless possibly Swallow Barn should be excepted, for reality as well as for color and spirit. No other book, of fact or fiction, so well sets forth the vision which in the days immediately before the Civil War Virginians cherished of their greater days on the eve of the Revolution—days the glories of which they thought it possible to bring back and for which if need be they were ready to fight another race of foreign tyrants. During the Civil War Cooke served as captain of cavalary, under Stuart, and had the experiences which he afterwards turned to use in a series of Confederate romances, most rememberable of which is Surry of Eagle’s Nest (1866). But in this and the related tales Hilt to Hilt (1869) and Mohun (1869), as well as in numerous later novels, he continued to practise the old manner which grew steadily more archaic as the rough and ready dime novel, on the one hand, and the realistic novel, on the other, gained ground. Toward the end of his life he participated, without changing his habits, in the revival of the historical romance which began in the eighties, but he still seemed a belated dreamer, the last of the old school rather than the first of the new.

Less close to Cooper was another novelist who fought in the Civil War, and who gave his life in one of its earliest battles, Theodore Winthrop (1828–61). Of a stock as eminent in New England and New York as Cooke’s in Virginia, he had a more cosmopolitan upbringing than Cooke: after Yale he traveled in Europe, in the American tropics, in California while the gold fever was still new, and in the Northwest. His work at first found so delayed a favor with publishers that his books were all posthumous. Time might, it is urged, have made Winthrop a legitimate successor of Hawthorne, but in fact he progressed little beyond the Gothic qualities of Charles Brockden Brown, whom he considerably resembles in his strenuous nativism, his melodramatic plots, his abnormal characters, his command over the mysterious, and his breathless style. Of his three novels—Cecil Dreeme (1861), John Brent (1862), Edwin Brothertoft (1862),—John Brent is easily the most interesting by reason of its vigorous narrative of adventures in the Far West, at that time a region still barely touched by fiction; nor should the real hero of John Brent, the magnificent black horse Don Fulano, go unmentioned. That Winthrop’s talent looked forward in this direction rather than backward to Hawthorne appears still more clearly from The Canoe and the Saddle (1863), a fresh, vivid, amusing, and truthful record of his own journey across the Cascade Mountains and an established classic of the Northwest. His early death, however, closed a promising chapter. Until the arrival of Mark Twain and Bret Harte even California did not enter fiction, and the states further north after sixty years still await their novelist, though the Canadian wilderness just across the border has been the scene of dozens of popular romances.

But Hawthorne and Cooke and Winthrop were not the characteristic novelists on the eve of the Civil War. It was the domestic sentimentalists who held the field. A brief decade endowed the nation with its most tender, most tearful classics. Then flowered Mrs. E. D. E. N. Southworth with The Curse of Clifton (1853), and subsequently with scores more to the very end of the century. Mary Jane Holmes with Tempest and Sunshine (1854) and Lena Rivers (1856); Augusta Jane Evans Wilson with Beulah (1859) and the slightly belated but no less characteristic St. Elmo (1866)—all of these ladies more or less in the Charlotte Temple tradition; Susan Warner with The Wide Wide World (1850) and Maria S. Cummins with The Lamplighter (1854), pious histories of precocious, flirtatious young girls; and—not so far above them—Donald Grant Mitchell with Reveries of a Bachelor (1850) and Dream Life (1851) and George William Curtis with Prue and I (1856), these two being, however, young men who thought of themselves as essayists rather than as novelists and who afterwards took themselves to sterner tasks. Professor Ingraham gave up his blood-and-thunder, became a clergyman, and wrote the long popular Biblical romance The Prince of the House of David (1855). T. S. Arthur in Ten Nights in a Bar Room (1855) mingled weak tears with the strong drink against which his lurid romance was aimed. And these particular successes emerge from a ruck of smaller undertakings which swarmed over the literary scene, coloring the world with pink and white, scenting it with the dry perfume of pressed flowers, quieting it to whispers and gentle sobs, neglecting all the bitter and pungent tastes of life, softening every asperity, hiding every thorn and thought.

Perhaps the best commentary upon this order of literature is to point out that whereas the dime novels were consumed by boys, and meant for them, sentimental romances fell increasingly into the hands of girls—especially of girls as molded and approved by American Victorianism. And yet it would be idle to declare that none of such books rises above the confectionery level. For a world that accepted the Victorian maiden as an ideal, The Wide Wide World, to take a typical instance, was a satisfying account of how she might be shaped out of the plastic material which she was supposed to be at birth. The heroine reads no novels, but she knows Weems’s Washington and Hail Columbia for the sake of her patriotism and tons of hymns and Biblical texts for her piety. The Christian virtues which were supposed to be best for maidens she has steadily dinned into her: resignation, long-suffering, loving kindness, all-embracing faith and charity. She goes through the most pathetic domestic experiences, tempered by all the fires of affliction she is old enough to be scorched by. Perhaps such narratives are little nearer to reality as regards the moods and conduct of the young girls of the time than are the dime novels as regards the actual adventures of their brothers, but they must have voiced contemporary aspirations and must have shown in action what was desired by the majority of parents and by many girls themselves. The decade was fighting romance with romance, the romance of blood with the romance of tears.

The tears of the women sentimentalists were the daughters of the tears of Richardson and the Evangelicals; the tears of Ik Marvel and G. W. Curtis were the sons of the tears of the gently secular Irving as exhibited in The Wife and The Pride of the Village. The Bachelor of the Reveries sits dreaming, at his comfortable hearth, the pensive dreams which the maiden of the time imagined he dreamed about the kind of maiden she imagined herself to be. The images which run through his mind are all of snug cottages and soft wives and rosy children and trim servants and lawns and gardens. In Dream Life he ventures somewhat further with his dreams and dips a little deeper into the felicities of bachelor reverie, but he is still a Lord of Shalott, sitting before the mirror in his safe tower. He tastes affection but no passion, longing but no ambition, piety but no religion, expectation but no experience. He stands at the very antipodes from the older dream-world of frontier adventure, and of course from the jangling world of the American fifties between the Fugitive Slave Law and the guns of Sumter. His imagination, like the fictive imagination generally, had withdrawn from the cold wind outside and was hugging itself warm over sentimental fires. Had there been less of the spirit of adolescence in its behavior, it might have sounded those richer and more permanent notes which come from the similar withdrawal of Isaak Walton and George Herbert in the seventeenth century, and might have had a larger claim upon posterity than that which lies in its lucid though fragile style and its sweetish taste and fragrance and its steadily-fading colors. Prue and I has a larger claim. Not only does it have still less than the Bachelor’s evangelical orthodoxy but it has a fuller, firmer, more masculine style, with certain grave tones lately contributed to the traditionary manner of Irving; and it has rather more body. The “I” of the story is substantially married to an amiable Prue who mends his trousers and understands his vagaries, which are to indulge as a spectator in the luxuries of the world he cannot afford in any other way. Castles in Spain, he argues, are never costly or impossible, for he himself has dozens. Thus did Curtis, who had already satirized the flamboyant wealth of New York in Potiphar Papers (1853), express the disposition of those New Yorkers who were not wealthy or fashionable to take refuge in an interior life as a protection against the increasing plutocracy of the city. That disposition is universal, and Prue and I, still far from forgotten, fails of being a genuine classic only by reason of the oversoftness and oversweetness which characterized the decade from which it sprang as the decade’s finest purely sentimental masterpiece.

The most effective of all these sentimentalists, a writer whom, indeed, a profound passion once or twice lifted above sentimentalism though its flavor still clung to her, remarkably represents the clerical aspects of the decade, for she was daughter, sister, wife, and mother of clergymen. Harriet Beecher (1811–96), born in Connecticut, was a most thorough child of New England when she went, in 1832, to live in Cincinnati, just across the Ohio River from slave soil. Her earliest sketches and tales, collected in a volume called The Mayflower in 1843, deal largely with her memories of her old home set down with an exile’s affection. In 1850 she returned to New England, for her husband, Calvin E. Stowe, had accepted a professorship in Bowdoin College. There, deeply stirred by the passing of the Fugitive Slave Law, which was challenge and alarm and martial signal to all conscientious Northerners, she began Uncle Tom’s Cabin; or, Life Among the Lowly, which on its appearance in 1852 met with a popular reception never before or since accorded to a novel. Its sales went to the millions. Over five hundred thousand Englishwomen signed an address of thanks to the author; Scotland raised a thousand pounds by a penny offering among its poorest people to help free the slaves; in France and Germany the book was everywhere read and discussed; while there were Russians who emancipated their serfs out of the pity which the tale aroused. In the United States, thanks in part to the stage, which produced a version as early as September, 1852, the piece belongs not only to literature but to folk-lore.

That Uncle Tom’s Cabin stands higher in the history of reform than in the history of the art of fiction no one needs to say again. Dickens, Kingsley, and Mrs. Gaskell had already set the novel to humanitarian tunes, and Mrs. Stowe did not have to invent a type. She had, however, no particular foreign master, not even Scott, all of whose historical romances she had been reading just before she began Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Instead, she adhered to the established native tradition, as old as Charlotte Temple and as new as The Wide Wide World, the tradition of sentimental, pious, instructive narratives written by women chiefly for women and very largely about women. Leave out the merely domestic elements of the book—slave families broken up by sale, ailing and dying children, negro women at the mercy of their masters, white households which at the best are slovenly and extravagant by reason of irresponsible servants and at the worst are abodes of brutality and license—and little remains. Many of the pages, too, are purple with melodrama, especially in the conceptions which the parson’s daughter and the professor’s wife had of St. Clair’s luxurious establishment and Legree’s filthy menagerie. To understand why the story touched the world so deeply it is necessary to understand how tense the struggle over slavery had grown, how thickly charged was the moral atmosphere awaiting a fatal spark, even though the spark might be naïve and artless. And yet the mere fact of an audience already prepared will not explain the mystery of a work which shook a powerful institution and which, for all its defects of taste and style and construction, still has surprising power. There were other anti-slavery novels, but they no longer move, lacking the ringing voice, the swiftness, the fulness, the frequent humor, the authentic passion of the greater book.

It has often been pointed out that Mrs. Stowe did not mean to be sectional, that she deliberately made her chief villain a New Englander, and that she expected to be blamed no more by the South than by the North, which she thought particularly guilty because it tolerated slavery without the excuse either of habit or of interest. Bitterly attacked by Southerners of all sorts, however, she defended herself in A Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1853), and then, after a triumphant visit to Europe, essayed another novel to illustrate the evil effects of slavery, particularly upon the whites. Dred (1856), in England known as Nina Gordon, has had its critical partizans, but posterity has not sustained them. Grave faults of construction, slight knowledge of the scene (North Carolina), a less simple and compact story than in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a larger share of disquisition—these weigh the book down, and most readers carry away only fragmentary memories of the black prophet Dred’s thunderous eloquence, of Tom Gordon’s shameless abuse of his power as a master, and of Old Tiff’s grotesque and beautiful fidelity. Dred appears to have exhausted Mrs. Stowe’s anti-slavery material, though she was, of course, a partizan and a pamphleteer during the Civil War. Thereafter, being now an international figure, she let her pen respond somewhat too facilely to the many demands made upon it till her death; she wrote numerous didactic and religious essays and tales; she was attentive to the follies of fashionable New York society, in which she had had little experience; Lady Byron chose her to publish the scandal by which the poet’s wife defended herself against the dead poet.

In another department of her work, however, Mrs. Stowe stood on surer ground, and her novels of New England life do well what there was later a whole school of New England story-writers to do after her. Weak in structure and sentimental she remained. Her heroines wrestle with problems of conscience happily alien to all but a few New England and Nonconformist British bosoms; her bold seducers, like Ellery Davenport in Oldtown Folks (1869) and Aaron Burr in The Minister’s Wooing (1859), are villains to frighten schoolgirls with; she writes always as from the pulpit, or at least from the parsonage. But where no theological or melodramatic idea governs her, she can be direct, accurate, and convincing. The earlier chapters of The Pearl of Orr’s Island (1862) must be counted, as Whittier thought, among the purest, truest idyls of New England, much as doctrinal casuistry clogs the narrative thereafter. It is harder—impossible, in fact—to agree with Lowell in placing The Minister’s Wooing first among her novels, and yet no other imaginative treatment so well sets forth the strange, dusky old Puritan world of the later eighteenth century when Newport was the center at once of the ruthless divinity of Samuel Hopkins, the minister of the novel, and of the African slave trade. Mrs. Stowe wisely did not put on the airs of an historical romancer but wrote like a contemporary of the earlier Newport with an added flavor from her own youthful recollections. This flavor was indispensable to her. When her memory of the New England she had known in her girlhood and had loved so truly that Cotton Mather’s Magnalia had seemed “wonderful stories … that made me feel the very ground I trod on to be consecrated by some special dealing of God’s providence”—when this memory worked freely and humorously upon materials which it was enough merely to remember and record, she was at her later best. These conditions she most fully realized in Poganuc People (1878), crisp, spare (for her), never quite sufficiently praised, and in Oldtown Folks, like the other a series of sketches rather than a novel, but—perhaps all the more because of that—still outstanding, for fidelity and point and canny, pawky humor, among the innumerable stories dealing with New England rural life.

Evangelical sentimentalism was carried on with large popular success by the Rev. Josiah Gilbert Holland of Massachusetts and the Rev. Edward Payson Roe of New York until nearly the end of the century, when others took up the perennial burden. That both Holland and Roe were clergymen is a sign that the old suspicion of the novel was nearly dead, even among those petty sects and sectarians that so long feared the effects of it. Holland, whose first novel had appeared in 1857, was popular moralist and poet as well as novelist and first editor of Scribner’s Magazine (founded 1870). His metrical novels, Bitter-Sweet (1858) and Kathrina (1867), sweet, soft, warm, and facile, probably caught more readers than any of his tales in prose. Roe contented himself with prose fiction. Chaplain of a regiment of cavalry and of one of the Federal hospitals during the Civil War, he later gave up the ministry in the conviction that he could reach thousands with his beguiling pen and only hundreds with his hortatory voice. His simple formula included: first, some topical material, historical event, or current issue; second, characters and incidents selected directly from his personal observation or from newspapers; third, an abundance of “Nature” descriptions with much praise of the rural virtues; and fourth, plots concerned almost invariably, and never too deviously, with the simultaneous pursuit of wives, fortunes, and salvation. Barriers Burned Away (1872), Opening a Chestnut Burr (1874), and Without a Home (1881) are said to have been his most widely read books, though none fell unheeded from the presses which labored to bring forth enough of them as fast as they were written.

The greatest, however, and practically the ultimate victory over village opposition to the novel was won by Ben-Hur (1880), a book of larger pretensions and broader scope than any of Roe’s or Holland’s modest narratives, the only American novel, indeed, which can be compared with Uncle Tom’s Cabin as a folk possession, and one so popular that as recently as 1913 an edition of a million copies was called for and distributed. Its author, General Lew Wallace (1827–1905), an Indiana lawyer, a soldier in both the Mexican and the Civil Wars, had already published The Fair God (1873), an elaborate romance of the conquest of Mexico which recalled the earlier concerns of Irving and Prescott and Robert Montgomery Bird. A chance conversation with the notorious popular skeptic Robert G. Ingersoll led Wallace to researches into the character and doctrines of Jesus which not only convinced him of the essential truth of Christianity but bore fruit in a tale, grandiose and ornate, which thousands have read who have read no other novel except perhaps Uncle Tom’s Cabin and have hardly thought of either as a novel at all, and through which still more thousands know the geography, ethnology, and customs of first-century Judea and Antioch as through no other source. Without doubt the outstanding element in the story is the sufficiently un-Christian revenge of Ben-Hur upon his false friend, Messala, a revenge which takes the Prince of Jerusalem through the galleys and the palæstra and which leaves Messala, after the thrilling (and to the popular taste, the classic) episode of the chariot race, crippled and stripped of his fortune. And yet, following even such pagan deeds, Ben-Hur’s discovery that he cannot serve the Messiah with the sword does not seem quite an anticlimax, though the conclusion, dealing with the Passion, like the introductory chapters on the meeting of the Magi, falls below the level of the revenge theme in energy and simplicity. Compared with other romances of the sort, however, with William Ware’s or Ingraham’s for instance, Ben-Hur easily passes them all, by a vitality which probably has a touch of genius. It passes, too, Wallace’s third romance, written while he was ambassador to Turkey, The Prince of India (1893), a long, dull performance with the Wandering Jew as the principal performer.