The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XVI. Early National Literature, Part II; Later National Literature, Part I.

XXIII. Writers of Familiar Verse

§ 7. Elsie Venner

Of Elsie Venner Holmes himself said that the “only use of the story is to bring the dogma of inherited guilt and its consequences into a clearer point of view”; and he declared that his “heroine found her origin not in fable or romance, but in a physiological conception, fertilized by a theological dogma.” In other words, Elsie Venner is a novel-with-a-purpose; it is a fiction devised by a nineteenth-century physician to attack eighteenth-century Calvinism. Perhaps a born story-teller could have so constructed his narrative as to fascinate the reader in spite of the argument it was intended to carry, but Holmes was not a born story-teller. He described characters and places, not for their bearing on the story itself, and not even for suggesting the appropriate atmosphere of the action, but mainly if not solely for their own sake, and quite in the manner of the character-writers who had blazed the trail for the early essayists. By the side of figures thoroughly known and delicately delineated, there are others, not a few, outlined in the primary colours and trembling on the very verge of caricature. In this we can discover the unfortunate influence of Dickens, as we can perceive the fortunate influence of Hawthorne in the treatment of the abnormal heroine. And equally obvious is the influence of Thackeray, who also began and ended his career as an essayist. Thackeray, even if he had a bias toward moralizing, confessed to the Brookfields that he found his ethical lectures very convenient when he had to pad out his copy to fill the allotted number of pages in the monthly parts in which his larger novels originally appeared. But Thackeray, after all, was a born story-teller, an inspired novelist, who got absorbed in his story and felt as though he were watching and not inventing his situations. Holmes lingered by the way and chatted with the reader, not from any external necessity, but because digression and even disquisition is to the essayist the breath of life.