Page:The Harvard Classics Vol. 51; Lectures.djvu/187
the present—for the present has always been Time's black sheep—exerts over the imagination.
The three-legged stool was only that and nothing more to our Puritan ancestors; now it is a piece of old Plymouth or old Salem, glorified by that association, and by the possibility that Governor Bradford or Priscilla Mullens may have sat on it. There lies the spell which historical novelists have cast with stupendous effect; and, having the environment, they introduce into it the historical personages who once belonged there.
The novelist, by his trade, may take or reject what he pleases; so that, if he finds the facts of history intractable, he may change or omit them. Or, since his deepest interest, like the biographer's, is in persons and the unfolding of character, he may achieve a lifelike portrait. At best, however, historical personages, as they appear in fiction, can never escape from the suspicion of being so far modified by the novelist that they are no longer real.
As to the larger question of the relative value of fiction and biography, we would not dogmatize. We would no more promote biography by abolishing fiction—if it were possible—than we would magnify sculpture by dwarfing painting. And yet, if talents equal to those of the foremost novelists had been or were devoted to writing biography, the popularity—at least among cultivated readers—of the two branches of literature might be reversed. As I have said, the utmost achievement for the novelist is to create an illusion so perfect that the characters in his books shall seem to be real.
In other words, so far as concerns reality, the novelist leaves oft where the biographer begins. And if the novelist has an apparent advantage in dealing with unruly facts, he is under the immense disadvantage of being restricted in his choice of characters. So true is this that, if all other records except the novels of the past century were to be destroyed, posterity five hundred years hence would have slight means of knowing the men and women through whom human evolution has really operated in our age. In no art has the process of vulgarization gone so far as in fiction. The novelist to-day dares not paint goodness or greatness; his upper limit is mediocrity; his lower is depravity, and he tends more and more to exploit the lower.