The American Novel/Chapter 10



I. 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 quaintness 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, high-bred 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 François (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), arid 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 the 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 Ade parodied 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 laughter of that very authentic buccaneer of the early eighteenth century, Stede Bonnet. And yet these belong out 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 and again. Historical personalities so crowd the scene 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 emigres 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 the 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.

2. Toward the Left: Naturalism

Among the followers of Howells toward realism, even though they might be genuine disciples, there was bound to come sooner or later a discontent with the gentleness which restrained him from portraying, the unlovely or illicit phases of American society. The earliest manifestations of this discontent, not always conscious, came from men and women who had studied farming conditions and, like E. W. Howe in, Kansas and Joseph Kirkland in Illinois, had found in them little that justified the smooth idyls of certain of the local color writers. Mary E. Wilkins Freeman in her short stories of New England, A Humble Romance and Other Stories (1887) and A New England Nun and Other Stories (1891); Harold Frederic in his novel of rural New York, Seth's Brother's Wife (1887); Hamlin Garland in his hard pastorals of the upper Middle West, Main-Travelled Roads (1891) and Prairie Folks (1893)—all these proceeded in a less cheerful mood than fiction had ordinarily employed in the eighties, and Garland was passionately devoted to the war on needless poverty which had already enlisted Henry George and Edward Bellamy. Ambrose Bierce's fierce Tales of Soldiers and Civilians (1891)—later called In the Midst of Life—added a sardonic note rare in American literature. That the short story at first prevailed among these new writers was owing to the enormous popularity of Kipling, who had developed the methods of Bret Harte and had returned them to America with interest. The novel, however, early shared the new impetus, which had a characteristic exposition in Hamlin Garland's essays, Crumbling Idols (1894). It was no longer enough, the new novelists argued and felt, to skim rosy surfaces. The novel, a powerful modern agency for civilization, must go deeper than it had gone in the United States, must turn to the light various ugly realities which, too long neglected, were growing more dangerous every day. It must deal candidly with political corruption, with economic injustice, with religious unrest, with sexual irregularities, with greed and doubt and hate and cruelty and blood, as well as with its standard subjects. It must assert its rights, its obligation, to speak of anything it chose, provided only the thing were true.

Doctrines so unquestionable, and in time so unquestioned, in the early nineties aroused vigorous antagonism. One pious reviewer declared that one of Mrs. Deland's books combined "the blasphemy of Ingersoll and the obscenity of Zola." In the preface to Summer in Arcady (1896) James Lane Allen protested against "those black chaotic books of the new fiction" which had lately come from Europe and were disturbing the simple virtues of American life. Tolstoy to many seemed unpardonably frank, and Flaubert and Zola to most seemed simply wicked, so strong was the tradition of optimism, decorum, reticence, in American fiction. Established habits of "decency," by which was meant a solicitous reserve in matters of sex and of suffering in general, did not break up, but the novel extended its inquiries to numerous matters rarely considered in the eighties. Three novels published in 1894 represent the transition: Mrs. Freeman's Pembroke, a study of New England stubbornness; Mrs. Deland's Philip and His Wife, a study of an unhappy marriage; and Paul Leicester Ford's The Honorable Peter Stirling, a chronicle of politics built up around the career, here idealized, of President Cleveland.

Late in 1895 appeared a striking novel, The Red Badge of Courage, which definitely belonged to the new fiction. Its author, Stephen Crane (1871—1900), was a genius who admired Tolstoy and who somewhat febrilely aimed at absolute truthfulness. He had already written and printed Maggie (1893; published 1896), a horrible picture of a degenerate Irish family in New York and the tragedy of a daughter who by the brutality she has to face at home is driven in desperation to the streets. The style is hard and bald; Crane betrays a youthful partizan's delight in candor oh forbidden topics; he piles up savage details with violent plain-speaking; the plot amounts to nothing more than a succession of writhing tableaus of blood or wretchedness. And yet, despite a good deal that is metallic in its construction, the book has effectiveness and sincerity. In its sort it outdid any native naturalistic novel yet offered to the American public, and after a generation it remains an interesting document in the history of naturalism. But Crane's great success attended The Red Badge of Courage, an episode of the Civil War. At the time of writing he knew war only from books, but the books he knew were Tolstoy's War and Peace and probably Zola's Débâcle. The plumes and trumpets and glory of battle consequently do not appear. The protagonist is a recruit for the first time under fire. Crane had but to imagine himself in a similar danger and reconstruct the moods that came over him. What he produced was amazingly brilliant. His recruit knows nothing of the general plan of the conflict. He obeys commands that he does not understand, that he resents, that he hates. His excited senses color the occasion, even the landscape. He suffers agonies of fatigue and almost a catastrophe of fear before he can be acclimated to his adventure. If he seems unusually imaginative, still he is imagined without too much subtlety. He speaks a convincing boyish dialect. His sensations are limited to something like his spiritual capacity. And the narrative as a whole Crane holds firmly in hand, pointing his prose with clean touches, heightening it here and there with poetry, warming it with an emotion which still leaves him critical. The Red Badge of Courage is a genuine feat of the imagination.

Crane's later novels and short stories, though some are vivid, add nothing to these two novels, and his early death truncated his career. Early death, too, cut off Wolcott Balestier, Kipling's' brother-in-law, and Harold Frederic, both men of promise, but never of more than promise. None of them, not even Crane, equaled Frank Norris (1870—1902), whom death at thirty-two could not cheat out of at least one masterpiece. The fame of Norris has always been colored by expectations of what he might have become had he lived to realize them. He seemed, as the older century ended and the new one opened, an authentic and prophetic voice. A leader in the little movement to "continentalize" American literature as a protest against local color, he was himself one of the least sectional of novelists. Born in Chicago, where he passed his boyhood, a student of art in Paris for two years, student for four years at the University of California and for one graduate year at Harvard, newspaper correspondent in South Africa at the time of the Jameson raid and in Cuba during the Santiago campaign, and later a journalist in San Francisco, Norris had a vision of American life which was geographically very wide. He was not a victim of any arid cosmopolitanism, for Zola, his chief teacher, and Kipling had taught Norris how much the strength of realism depends upon facts observed in their native places. And though one pf his earliest passions was for Froissart, and his first book, Yvernelle (1892), was a verse romance upon a medieval French theme, his mature plots were laid almost entirely in settings with which he was familiar. That so many of them are Californian must be ascribed to his early death; he meant later to turn to other regions.

What gave Norris this large "continental" view of his materials was a certain epic disposition which he had. He tended to vast plans and conceived trilogies. His Epic of the Wheat—The Octopus (1901), which deals with the production of wheat in California, The Pit (1903), which deals with the distribution of wheat through the Chicago Board of Trade, and The Wolf, which, though never written, was to have dealt with the relieving of a famine in Europe by American wheat—he thought of as three distinct novels, bound together only by the cosmic spirit of the wheat which comes up from the abundant earth and moves irresistibly to its appointed purpose, guided, of course, by men, and fought and played over by them, but always mightier than they and always their master as well as their sustenance. Another trilogy to which he meant to give years of work would have centered about the battle of Gettysburg, one part for each day, and would have sought to present what Norris considered the American spirit as his Epic of the Wheat sought to present an impersonal force of nature. Such conceptions explain the grandiose manner which Norris never lost and they serve to explain, too, the passion of his naturalism.

As to his actual achievement, The Pit, though its success on the stage and its vivid presentation of a thrilling drama of business made it more popular than The Octopus, is certainly inferior to the first member of the series. With greater ease and lucidity, it has less poetry, less depth of scene and texture, less final significance. In proportion as mere trafficking in wheat is a less organic function than either growing it or eating it, so The Pit falls in interest and power below The Octopus, which takes high rank among the best of American novels. The Octopus of the title is the Pacific and Southwestern Railroad which holds the wheat growers of California in its cruel tentacles, able if it likes to deny them access to their natural markets, and consequently a symbol of the control which economic machinery exercises over the elements of life. The book sets forth the drama of Agriculture and Trade locked in a fierce conflict, with Trade for the moment villain and victor. Norris's sympathies lie with the oppressed ranchmen; the Railroad has the iron teeth and ruthless hunger of the Old Witch of juvenile melodrama; in the end, though the ranchers have been defeated, the wheat itself too symbolically pours in upon the agent of the Railroad and destroys him—the wheat "untouched, unassailable, undefined, that mighty world-force, that nourisher of nations, wrapped in Nirvanic calm, indifferent to the human swarm, gigantic, resistless." And yet these cosmic implications do not remove the story too far from actual existence in California. The canvas swarms with actualities—plowing, planting, harvesting, sheep-herding, merry-making, rabbit-killing, love, labor, birth, death. Intimately involved with the hard, sordid strife of daily affairs are fine, if not always quite realized, phases of poetry and faith. The style, though tending always to turgidity, is strong and full; the movement, though at times nervous, is rapid; the pictures, though perhaps excessively panoramic, are always richly alive.

The passion which informs The Octopus, a kind of fiery zeal for truth which lifted and enlarged all Norris wrote, is the quality which marked him off from the older realism of Howells. Zola had it, and Norris, who called Zola "the very head of the Romanticists," was even willing to name his own form of naturalism romantic if he could thus argue for the use in fiction of deeper and more stirring truths than those minute, those surface matters which, in his judgment, were the chief stock in trade of official realism. Perhaps the most obvious instance in his work of this romantic tendency is the story of Vanamee in The Octopus, the sheep-herder who has mystical communion with the spirit of his dead mistress. But equally romantic, in fact, is Norris's constant preoccupation with "elemental" emotions. His heroes are nearly all violent men, wilful, passionate, combative; his heroines—thick-haired, large-armed women, almost all of a single physical type—are endowed with a frank and deep, if slow vitality. Love in Norris's world is the mating of vikings and valkyries. A plain case of such heroic passions may be found in Moran of the Lady Letty (1898), the story of a civilized young San Franciscan who is shanghaied upon a Pacific fishing boat and, among many adventures, meets and loves the splendid Norse savage, Moran, whom he wins with the valor aroused in him by a primitive life. Blix (1899) and A Man's Woman (1900) and The Octopus and The Pit only repeat this pair of lovers in varying costumes and occupations. In McTeague (1899) the protagonist, married to a woman of a different type, finally murders her. Love, however, is by no means the chief concern of these novels, which are crowded with ardently detailed phases of life which had not yet appeared, or at least had not yet become common, in American fiction: shark-fishing and beach-combing off the California coast; the routine doings of vulgar people in San Francisco and the city's Bohemian aspects; the deadly perils of Arctic exploration; the materials of The Octopus already cited; the enormous conflicts of trading in the Chicago Wheat pit; the ugly dissipations of undergraduates as presented in the posthumous but early Vandover and the Brute (1914). In all these Norris sought to find the basic elements of human nature and to present them with unhesitating accuracy. His eagerness to be truthful in a new way gave him his energy, particularly in scenes of action, although the same eagerness deprived him of mellow reflection and rounded grace. His volume of essays, The Responsibilities of the Novelist (1903), companion in theory to Hamlin Garland's Crumbling Idols, shows him to have been less a thinker than a passionate partizan of the rising doctrine of naturalism. It shows, too, how large was the store in him of a fire and an energy which would not lightly have perished had he lived, but must have carried him on to growth and varied triumphs.

Norris was but one of a group of novelists who began their careers about 1900, in the very midst of the hullaballoo of rococo romance—indeed, more or less as a protest against it. Theodore Dreiser with Sister Carrie (1900) initiated his powerful, vexed career. Edith Wharton wrote her early short stories with caustic irony and without sentimentalism; Stewart Edward White in The Blazed Trail (1902) escaped from civilization to the thrilling rigors of Michigan lumber camps. Brand Whitlock, titularly a disciple of Howells, in The 13th District (1902), and Alfred Henry Lewis in The Boss (1903), exposed the mean crafts of politics; Robert Herrick, particularly in his Memoirs of an American Citizen (1905), hated the rose-color and fatuous optimism of conventional fiction; Charles D. Stewart in The Fugitive Blacksmith (1905) produced a strangely neglected and yet a singularly diverting picaresque tale; Upton Sinclair, romancer in Manassas (1904), turned in The Jungle (1906) to his fierce warfare upon the abuses of modern industrial America; William Allen White in his volume of stories In Our Town (1906) touched critical notes not always apparent in his work. All these writers are still living.

One writer associated with them, David Graham Phillips (1867-1911), calls for especial mention. Like most of the others a Middle Westerner and a journalist, he emerged from the era of public muck-raking and carried his assault into the private lives represented in his novels. He believed—and proposed his doctrines in The Reign of Gilt (1905)—that democracy is essentially more decent and more efficient than aristocracy; that most of the confusions and distortions of American life arise from the restricting hand which various forms of privilege lay upon it; that it is the duty as well as the natural behavior of a novelist to reveal existent conditions without favors or reserves. In a score of novels composed with a fierce energy he ranged over the American scene in his hunt for snobbery and stupidity and cruelty and greed, turning them up to the light with a gusto not matched by the art of his revelations. Serious as his books are in intention, useful as documents, no one of them is a masterpiece and no one of them shows any very definite signs of surviving, though the bulky Susan Lenox (1917) has considerable notoriety as one of the fullest portraits of an American courtesan. With all his powers, Phillips was crude and heavy: he had neither the bright concentration of Stephen Crane nor the symbolic meaning and poetry of Frank Norris nor the large, blundering tenderness of Theodore Dreiser. He is hopelessly deficient in charm, and his undoubted merits do not make up for the deficiency.

Jack London (1876-1916) was a novelist of the American proletariat. Born in California, the son of a frontier scout and trapper, he lived as a boy in an ordinary bourgeois environment, tempered by the novels and romantic history which he insatiably devoured. At fourteen he left school to become an unskilled laborer in a dozen occupations, becoming in time an oyster-pirate and a longshoreman in and near the bay of San Francisco and shipping before the mast at seventeen to go as far as Japan and the Bering Sea. In a mood of disgust induced by overwork he became at eighteen a tramp who covered ten thousand miles in the United States and Canada during the hard times of the early nineties and who made up his mind that he could no longer continue in the treadmill which his great bodily strength had heretofore regarded as a pleasure and which his reading had told him was a virtue. Home once more, he encountered books which confirmed him in his resolution. A year at the University of California and a winter in the Klondike during the gold rush still further confirmed him: he became a socialist and a revolutionist; with enormous labors he made himself into a popular writer, discovered that the politer world which he consequently entered was not all he had imagined it, and once for all cast in his fortunes with the working class. He visited the East End of London, cruised in the South Seas, acted as correspondent during the Russo-Japanese War and in Mexico in 1914, lectured and traveled and farmed and made large sums of money till the end of his life.

As a propagandist for socialism he wrote War of the Classes (1905), Revolution (1910), and The Iron Heel (1908), a romance recounting an imaginary revolution of 1932. Of his autobiographical writings The People of the Abyss (1903), his adventures in the London slums, The Road (1907), his life as a tramp, Martin Eden (1909), his struggles in learning to write, The Cruise of The Snark (1911), a voyage in the Pacific, John Barleycorn (1913), his alcoholic memories, are most important, although autobiography colors all his records and inventions. His popularity and his eagerness for money tempted him to write much, especially in the way of short stories, that was decidedly below his better level, and he never, indeed, rose above his first marked success, The Call of the Wild (1903). Although he constantly played with ideas in his books, and liked to hint naïvely at his learning, he wrote always under the obsession of physical energy. What was "elemental" in Frank Norris became "abysmal" in Jack London. He carried the cult of "red blood" in literature to an extreme at which it began to sink to the ridiculous, as in his lineal descendants of the moving-pictures. His heroes, whether wolves or dogs or prize-fighters or sailors or adventurers-at-large, have all of them approximately the same instincts and the same careers. They rise to eminence by battle, hold the eminence for a while by the same methods, and eventually go down under the rush of stronger enemies. London, with the strength of the strong, exulted in the struggle for survival. He saw human history in terms of the evolutionary dogma, which to him seemed a glorious, continuous epic of which his stories were episodes. He set them in localities where the struggle could be most obvious: in the wilds of Alaska, on remote Pacific Islands, on ships at sea out of hearing of the police, in industrial communities during strikes, in the underworld's of various cities, on the routes of vagabondage. As he had a boy's glee in conflict, so he had a boy's insensibility to physical suffering. The Sea-Wolf (1904) represents at its fullest his appetite for cold ferocity in its record of the words and deeds of a Nietzschean, Herculean, Satanic ship captain whose incredible strength terminates credibly in sudden paralysis and impotence. The Game (1905) shouts the lust of the flesh as expressed in pugilism. Before Adam (1906) goes apparently still further afield in a quest for the primitive and moves among the half arboreal ancestors of the race. White Fang (1905) reverses The Call of the Wild and brings a wolf among dogs.

The Call of the Wild, summary as well as summit of London's achievement, is the story of a dog stolen from civilization to draw a sledge in Alaska, eventually to escape from human control and go back to the wild as leader of a pack of wolves. As in most animal tales the narrative is sentimentalized. Buck has a psychology which he derives too obviously from his human creator; learns the law of the brute wilderness too quickly and too consciously; dreams too definitely of the savage progenitors from whom he inherits, by way of atavism, his ability to contend with a new world. The pathetic fallacy, however, has behind it a reality in London's own experience which lends power to the drama of Buck's restoration to the primitive. In something of this fashion the young tramp had; learned the hard rules of the road; in something of this fashion the gold-seeker had mastered the difficulties of the Klondike face, to face with a pitiless nature which made no allowance for his handicaps and which apparently desired the destruction of the men who had ventured into, the wilderness. Out of his experience he had built up a doctrine concerning the essential life of mankind, and out of his doctrine he had shaped, this characteristic tale. But the doctrine is not excessively in evidence, and the experience contributes both an accurate lore and an authentic passion. The narrative is as spare as an expedition over the Chilkoot Pass; it is swift and strong, packed with excitement and peril. Moreover, it has what almost none of Jack London's "red blood" rivals had, and what he later deprived himself of by his haste and casualness: a fine sensitiveness to landscape and environment, a robust, moving, genuine current of poetry which warms his style and heightens the effect while enriching it. The subsequent loss or surrender of such qualities cost London the higher place to which his genius entitled him but from which the defects of his artistic conscience and his excess of popularity held him down.

American naturalism has never produced a school or announced a program. Instead, beginning primarily as a disposition to dissent from the milder insipidities of average novels at the end of the last century, it has continued in that disposition ever since. Theodore Dreiser has successively set up massive pyramids of fiction built out of materials ordinarily rejected by genteel American builders as sordid or improper or dull. Though his hand is heavy and his mind not quite made up concerning his materials, his documentation of the age cannot be overlooked. Neither can that of Upton Sinclair, whose radical opinions have cost him heavily with ordinary publishers and public, but whose earnestness and skill in controversy deserve the high praise that they recall Thomas Paine. The past half-dozen years in seeing the energies of Edith Wharton devoted to the service of France have seen the cause of the novel temporarily deprived of an indubitable genius whose work has sophistication, satire, acuteness, verisimilitude, and grace to a degree unmatched among those of her contemporaries whose qualities may be thought of as already proved. At the other extreme from the fashionable New York which she ordinarily portrays is the East Side of Abraham Cahan, a novelist who has written few books in English but who in knowledge and vividness surpasses all who have dealt with the proletarian immigrant in American cities.

The term naturalism by no means fits James Branch Cabell, who has laid the scene of much of his invention in medieval Europe and who at many points seems incorrigibly romantic; and yet a temper so ironical and so unconventional sets him widely apart from the rococo romancers of the years during which he commenced to write. He belongs rather with those brilliant newer writers, like Sherwood Anderson, Dorothy Canfield, Willa Cather, Floyd Dell, Zona Gale, Joseph Hergesheimer, Sinclair Lewis, and Ernest Poole, who seem to forecast a new generation of novelists who will not be content to strike some interesting note and then to keep on striking and exploiting it till the end of their careers, but who instead will dare to experiment and may thus succeed in growing. Hope springs, and help may come, from the example of the poets—of Edwin Arlington Robinson and Robert Frost and Edgar Lee Masters—who have recently been showing how much of drama can be distilled into a little verse. They have already been important influences upon the more scrupulous and reflective novelists, and a continuation of their influence is perhaps an element as much to be desired as any in the coming generation of American fiction.