Home  »  The American Novel  »  Section 1. Toward the Right: Rococo Romance

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

Chapter 10. Reaction and Progress

Section 1. Toward the Right: Rococo Romance

DIVERSIFIED as were the types of fiction during the eighties, what actually prevailed then was a sort of official realism, expounded by Howells and James and practised by most of the novelists of the decade at least in style or structure if not always in materials. From this most refined and, on the whole, most artistic moment in the history of the American novel, there followed two reactions. Perhaps the movement toward a harsher realism, an avowed naturalism, should hardly be called a reaction, proceeding as it did not so much by a return to some earlier mode as by an advance to a new idiom of actuality; still it indicated a temperamental reaction from the gentilities of the established school. The rush of historical romance, however, which amounted to a deluge at about the time of the war with Spain, was clearly a reaction. As to form and doctrine, it proceeded largely from the example of Robert Louis Stevenson, who had taken issue with the realists in defense of his own eager preferences for the tradition of Scott, and who in England had led an active group of romancers to new if not classic triumphs. Having set themselves in opposition to the current habits of realism, these romancers naturally limited themselves as compared with Scott, who was romancer and realist both at once, but they brought to the revived form a dexterity of plot and a neatness of finish which Scott had lacked. The American romancers of the period, accompanying their British contemporaries in art, at the same time kept for the most part at home in their choice of themes and matter.

The local color writers had frequently dipped into such history as their sections afforded, though employing history generally as handmaid not mistress. Within two or three years after Stevenson’s Kidnapped (1886) and Rider Haggard’s She (1887), history in the American novel assumed an importance it had not had since Cooper and Hawthorne. Arthur Sherburne Hardy in 1889 published Passe Rose, a dainty romance of the time of Charlemagne, and Harold Frederic, the next year, In the Valley, a substantial, unaffected narrative of life along the Mohawk at the time of the French and Indian War. The material thus touched upon by Frederic had already been discovered by Mary Hartwell Catherwood, who probably thought of Stevenson but certainly thought of Francis Parkman, who wrote an introduction to The Romance of Dollard (1889) vouching for its historicity. She had discovered a new romantic treasure; the angular quaint ness of Pike County now gave way before the charm of an older world adventuring in the Middle West, noblemen pitted against savages, black-robed Jesuits, coureurs de bois swarming through all the rivers and forests, highbred ladies strayed into the wilderness, innocent Indian maidens, half-breed villains, French villages as little as possible like the Anglo-Saxon towns which had grown up on their ancient sites.

Mrs. Catherwood during the years 1889–1894 forecast almost all the developments of the more fecund years from 1896–1902 which saw the most active school of historical romances the United States has produced. Merely to name the more successful performances of the period suffices to show in what fashion the romantic imagination then worked: Mark Twain’s Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc (1896), James Lane Allen’s The Choir Invisible (1897), Richard Harding Davis’s Soldiers of Fortune (1897), S. Weir Mitchell’s Hugh Wynne (1897) and The Adventures of Francois (1898), Charles Major’s When Knighthood Was in Flower (1898), Thomas Nelson Page’s Red Rock (1898), Mary Johnston’s Prisoners of Hope (1898) and To Have and to Hold (1899), F. Marion Crawford’s Via Crucis (1898) and In the Palace of the King (1900), Paul Leicester Ford’s Janice Meredith (1899), Winston Churchill’s Richard Carvel (1899), The Crisis (1901), and The Crossing (1904), Booth Tarkington’s Monsieur Beaucaire (1900), Maurice Thompson’s Alice of Old Vincennes (1900), Henry Harland’s The Cardinal’s Snuff-Box (1901), George Barr McCutcheon’s Graustark (1901), Robert W. Chambers’s Cardigan (1901), Mary Hartwell Catherwood’s Lazarre (1901), Owen Wister’s The Virginian (1902), Gertrude Atherton’s The Conqueror (1902), Ellen Glasgow’s The Battleground (1902) and Deliverance (1904), John Fox’s The Little Shepherd of Kingdom Come (1903). Mary E. Wilkins Freeman left her austere tales of rural New England to write a romance of the swashbuckling seventeenth century, The Heart’s Highway (1900); Edward Bellamy similarly turned away from his forte in The Duke of Stockbridge (1900), and Cable in The Cavalier (1901), and Miss Jewett in The Tory Lover (1901), and Frank R. Stockton in Kate Bonnet (1902). After 1902 the type began rapidly to decline, both in energy and popularity. Mary Johnston persisted in romance for several years, but her contemporaries, Winston Churchill, Ellen Glasgow, Booth Tarkington, moved on toward realism with the times. The older writers who had been drawn aside by episode nearly all went back to their earlier methods. Even Churchill’s The Crossing in 1904 seemed belated, and Weir Mitchell’s The Red City in 1908 decidedly so; in The Slim Princess (1907) George Adeparodied the “Ruritanian” romance popularized by Anthony Hope in The Prisoner of Zenda (1894) and still continued by George Barr McCutcheon in Beverly of Graustark (1904) and later inanities; Frederick Jesup Stimson’s My Story (1917), an ostensible autobiography of Benedict Arnold, seemed almost prehistoric; and Irving Bacheller’s A Man for the Ages (1919) had to depend for its vogue upon the recent great increase of interest in Lincoln.

Such of these narratives as dealt in any way with the present generally took their slashing, skylarking, and robustly Yankee heroes, as in Soldiers of Fortune or Graustark, off to more or less imaginary regions for deeds of haughty daring and exotic wooing. Elsewhere, even in the romances with a foreign scene, taste ran to the past: to the whirling Paris of the French Revolution as in François or to the frilled and powdered Bath of the eighteenth century as in Monsieur Beaucaire; or still further to the Tudor sixteenth century of When Knighthood Was in Flower or the French fifteenth century of Joan of Arc. The bulk of the romancers, however, as in Cooper’s time, kept their imaginations ordinarily at home. Red Rock and Deliverance chronicled on a large if rather melodramatic scale the process of Reconstruction in Virginia; The Crisis, The Cavalier, and The Battleground are all transacted during the Civil War in the regions respectively of the middle and lower Mississippi and of Virginia; Lazarre revived the old tradition that the Dauphin had been brought to America to grow up among the Indians; and Kate Bonnet made its heroine a mythical daughter of that very authentic buccaneer of the early eighteenth century, Stede Bonnet. And yet these belong but to the fringes of the historical fiction of their day. Much as with Cooper’s contemporaries, these American romancers exploited the American matters of the Settlement, the Revolution, and the Frontier. As the frontier, of course, no longer meant to Americans what it had meant when it still occupied a great portion of the continent, the romancers made less of it than of the other standard matters. The Virginian, which is really an older dime novel somewhat glorified, accurately if sentimentally preserves in its pictures of cowboy life in Wyoming the habits and speech of those amazing Centaurs of the last frontier who, though now practically banished from reality, are still firmly fixed in the national memory. Other records of that phase were racier and crisper but no one has been quite so well remembered. The Little Shepherd of Kingdom Come, as well as earlier and later novels by the same hand, portrayed the backward mountaineers of Kentucky whose manner of life in 1900 still resembled that of the frontier of Cooper and Simms. If the matter of the Frontier partially eluded the ardor of the romancers, nothing of the sort happened to the Settlement and the Revolution, which now luxuriantly bloomed again. The hardships of pioneering and of warfare were united in Alice of Old Vincennes, an account of the expedition of George Rogers Clark, and in The Crossing, which portrayed the West during the Revolutionary and Federalist eras from Vincennes and Kaskaskia on the north and from the Carolinas on the east to the Mississippi and to Louisiana. The true territory of romance, however, lay east of the Alleghanies, between New Jersey and Richmond. For every tale concerned with New England or New York there were two or three concerned with Pennsylvania or Virginia. The Tory Lover moves from Miss Jewett’s gentle Berwick to Europe and back: The Duke of Stockbridge is a romance of Shays’ Rebellion. But The Heart’s Highway hovers around Jamestown at the end of its first century; Prisoners of Hope and To Have and to Hold rarely stray far from Tide Water; Richard Carvel joins the England of Dr. Johnson with Revolutionary Maryland; Hugh Wynne and Janice Meredith range from New York to Yorktown, yet the center of their interests is the Philadelphia of the Continental Congress.

Topographical classification is practically as suitable with these tales as with those of the first period of American romance. Certain distinctions of course appear. Joan of Arc stands clearly to one side by virtue of a power which none of its rivals display. The Choir Invisible employs history only incidentally in a poetic and highly sentimental interpretation of human existence. To Have and to Hold is more ornate in style, Monsieur Beaucaire more graceful and piquant, The Crossing more grandiose in its sweep, than the ordinary run. Janice Meredith is based upon remarkable erudition and Hugh Wynne remarkably sums up the traditions of Philadelphia as remembered by the descendants of her Augustan age. In spite of these distinctions, however, the general corpus of such romances forms a singularly unified mass. Certain themes like the importation of wives to Virginia, the fate of gentlemen who desperately came over as indentured servants (“convicts”), the exploits of John Paul Jones, are repeated again that a hero or a heroine can hardly step out upon the street or go to dinner without encountering some eminent man—particularly Franklin or Washington, or some one of the colonial governors of Virginia. While intensely American in reporting the conflicts with English rule, the stories almost always sympathize with the colonial and Revolutionary gentry as against the humbler orders, with Washington as against Jefferson, with the aristocratic emigrés from France as against the revolutionists. Details of costume load the narrative far more than descriptions of landscape. Fine gentlemen, called “Cavaliers” till the word becomes a byword, flutter and ruffle across the stage, with splendid gestures and delicate points of honor, sudden in quarrel, quick with quaint oaths, incomparable at the small sword or the minuet, poetic and patriotic and heroic. With them in all their lighter moments are exquisite ladies, generally very young but with some dowagers among them, who live in spacious, cool houses, in a world of mahogany and silver and brocade; ladies who ardently expect new bales of clothing from London but who joyfully sacrifice all such delights during the Revolution; ladies who rise late, take the air genteelly, play at lovely needlework, and spend their nights at balls of elaborate splendor; and yet ladies who know the saddle and, when need comes, put off their squeamishness and rough it in the most dangerous escapades without a tremor. One formula furnishes something like half the notable plots: an honest American gentleman, mortally opposed to a villain who is generally British, courts a beautiful American girl through acute vicissitudes and wins her only in the bitter end just before or after killing his wicked rival in a duel. As if this were a theater of marionettes there are only a few puppets, though there are plenty of handsome costumes to vary the entertainment. As might be expected, the style of all these novels approaches identity, a fluid, languid style, ready to slip into blank verse at the provocation of any heightened moment, and constantly tinctured with a faint archaism of diction and rhythm. “There is an old book my grandchildren love to hear me read to them,” says Hugh Wynne in a tone which would fit nearly every novel of the time. “It is the ‘Morte d’Arthur,’ done into English by Sir Thomas Malory. Often when I read therein of how Arthur the king bade farewell to the world and to the last of the great company of his Knights of the Round Table, this scene at Whitehall slip [Washington’s farewell to his officers] comes back to me, and I seem to see once more those gallant soldiers, and far away the tall figure of surely the knightliest gentleman our days have known.”

The reference to Malory—who in The Choir Invisible is cited as the truest teacher of virtue—illuminates the aims and methods of all rococo romancers. Writing of a time so recent as the Civil War or Reconstruction, they could use a dialect almost contemporary, but the moment they drew near to the Revolution or the Settlement they fell into the language which the nineteenth century had thought the fit medium for medieval deeds. The deeper American past to the romancers seemed a sort of middle age. Their inferiority to the Cooper of the Leather-Stocking Tales or to the Melville of Moby Dick lies in the fact that whereas Cooper and Melville, much as they might invent, still worked upon a solid basis in a mood not too far from the mood of realism, their successors wrote romance pure and simple, even when they were most erudite. Romance was in the air. Not all the publishing enterprise which developed romances into “best sellers” and distributed millions of copies could have done so but for the moment of national expansiveness which attended the Spanish War. Patriotism and jingoism, altruism and imperialism, passion and sentimentalism, shook the temper which had slowly been stiffening since the Civil War. Now, with a rush of unaccustomed emotions the national imagination sought out its own past, delighting in it, wallowing in it. Had the romancers who met the mood been more deeply grounded in reality and less sentimental, or had the national mood lasted for a longer time, some eminent masterpiece might have emerged. None did, and the gold lace and gilt of the narratives actually evoked began to tarnish almost as soon as the wind touched them. But it was an episode not without charm and not without a considerable romantic energy.

Of the novels Hugh Wynne perhaps came closest to permanence, and S. Weir Mitchell (1829–1913) of the writers who are no longer living most deserves special mention. A Philadelphian, he set aside his youthful literary ambitions on the advice of Oliver Wendell Holmes, made himself a distinguished medical specialist, particularly in nervous diseases, and only after fifty gave much time to the verse and fiction which he wrote henceforth until his death. His professional knowledge enabled him to write authoritatively of difficult and wayward states of body and mind: as in The Case of George Dedlow (1880), so circumstantial in its improbabilities, Roland Blake (1886), which George Meredith admired, The Autobiography of a Quack (1900), concerning the dishonorable purlieus of the medical profession, and Constance Trescott (1905), considered by Mitchell his best constructed novel and certainly his most thorough-going study of a pathological mood. His psychological stories, however, had neither quite the appeal nor quite the merit of his historical romances, which began with Hephzibah Guinness (1880) and extended to Westways (1913). Westways is a chronicle of the effects of the Civil War in Pennsylvania, but Mitchell’s best work belongs to the Revolutionary cycle: Hugh Wynne, the career of a Free Quaker on Washington’s staff, The Red City, a picture of Washington’s second administration, and The Adventures of François, which stands as close to the American stories as did the revolutionary Paris to the city of Franklin. Philadelphia, so often the center of action, appears under a softer, mellower light than has been thrown by romance upon any other Revolutionary city, and Washington, though drawn, like Philadelphia, as much to the life as Mitchell could draw him, is still a stately demigod.

Since the decline of the rococo mode there has been no definite school of romancers in America, although the cult of Lincoln, both in poetry and imaginative prose, since the Lincoln centennial in 1909 has furnished a theme which may reasonably be expected to assume a large importance in any future revival of romance. The Revolution and the Settlement have had their chief exponents among writers of juvenile fiction; the Frontier has attracted the notice of the moving pictures to an enormous extent; the sea has been exploited in the overpraised tales of Morgan Robertson. The World War elicited, of course, an enormous number of romantic inventions, but they were restricted, almost without exception, to the melodramatic tradition of subliterary entertainment: German plots, German spies, dashing Yankee heroes, tender maidens. In dozens and scores of such novels the narrative begins in an effeminate or troubled peace, and then brings in the war with a rush of trial and purgation. Some of them skilful as propaganda, not one has the look of permanence.