Genius, and other essays/Mrs. Stoddard's Novels
ALL lovers of true literature will consider it both just and fortunate that Mrs. Stoddard's books of fiction should now be reproduced in standard library form, as a recognition of their place among works of fascinating interest and permanent value. These tales, their scenes and period, antedate the younger generation. Yet they are essentially modern, and in keeping with the choicest types of recent fiction. To be before one's time, in authorship, is as trying as to be born too late. If The Morgesons, Two Men, and Temple House, had not been written until the tempest of the Civil War was more fully assuaged,—if in other respects the season had been ripe,—they would have been received by the many, as they were by the critical few, for what they verily were—the pioneers of something new and real in the novelist's art.
—Of something real, without doubt, for the keynote of Two Men is surely that saying of Emerson's which precedes it: "Let us treat the men and women . . . as if they were real—perhaps they are." By the rule of her own nature, Mrs. Stoddard was among the first to break away from a prevailing false sentiment, to paint "things seen" as they are—to suggest the unseen as it must be.
But that her stories of human life, in a downeast village port, are "realistic," and were so in the adverse time of their first appearance, is not their vital claim. For they are "romantic," none the less, and often impassioned. I find little profit in the jealous conflict waged as to the values of the so-called realistic and romantic schools; save that it has brought out some good criticism, and that every such warfare is stimulating to both sides. Otherwise, it is chiefly an expression of one's taste or distaste for certain writers, or his opinion that too persistent fashions should in their turns give way. Often it is a dispute or confusion as to the meaning of a word. For who can doubt that art, to be of worth, must never be an abject copyist, yet should have its basis in life as it is and things as they are,—or that impassioned speech and action must be natural even in their intensity? Who does not feel that the most daring idealism must keep within the possibilities, as we conceive them, of nature; that Romance, with the bird of the Danish proverb, though soaring high, must seek its food on earth? Away then, like the author of these novels, from the mouthing, the stilted talk, the sentimentalism, of a pseudo-romantic school. On the other hand, of what value is a realistic work, with no strong personality behind it? The true question is—how much of invention, imagination, passion, has gone into its making? The method is nothing—nothing—compared with the quality of the practitioner. All methods, as time and fashion change, become the servants of genius: it does great things with all and in spite of any.
In these days of training and opportunity, moreover, there is a notion that most things can be effected by toil and culture; whereas, in all art, that which is significant is the result of a special gift—call it what you will. It comes with the uncommon touch, the sensitive ear and eye,—with that sixth sense, the vision which sees "what's under lock and key, man's soul." Mrs. Stoddard's novels appeal to us through a quality of their own. Written, I think, without much early practice, yet with experience of life, their strong original style—unmistakable as a human voice—is that of one with a gift, and the writer's instinct produces effects which a mere artist tries for in vain. Style, insight, originality, make books like Two Men and Temple House additions not merely to the bulk of reading, but to literature itself; as distinct in their kind as Wuthering Heights and Margaret, or even as Père Goriot or Richard Feverel. They express an individuality: many will like it, others may not, but it is here. The latter class must be blind, I think, to certain excellences. If we love nature, who sees its broad and minute features like this woman, or puts them in with more sure and brief touches,—rarely, and as a background to her groups and action, and through that innate knowledge of their subordinate use which belongs to the true dramatic faculty?
The human elements of Two Men, for example, seem the more notable for its narrow limits, and for the smallness of the stage on which tragedy and comedy are set forth. The personages are sharply outlined; their play of thought and passion is the more intense for an atmosphere of repression, the Puritan air, tempered by free ocean winds,—breathing which, many an Osmond Parke must needs be a rover and cosmopolite. Yet one is reminded of Thoreau's avowal that he knew the world, for he had travelled many years in Concord. Things and manners doubtless have changed in "Crest," but these folk are still modern—for we read their souls, and their speech bewrayeth them. Generations come and go in this short tale: its scenes of life, love and death are strangely impressive. The commonplace is here, but not dwelt upon, and slight actions are full of meaning; the bustle of Cuth and Elsa at their work, Jason's trick of throwing up his hammer and catching it on the turn,—these are characteristic and essential. How vividly, as the story goes on, each figure lives, moves, and has its being:—Sarah, the typical woman of her race, whose indomitable negative force keeps all within the circle of her narrow will—Cuth and Elsa, the family "help," faithful as dogs, reflecting and commenting like a Greek chorus—the winning, selfish, sensuous, irresolute Osmond and Parke—the wholesome and handsome Theresa—the noble Philippa, slow-moulded into perfect womanhood—the provincial village-folk—among all, over all, the grim form and visage of the heroic carpenter, Jason Auster, the downeast village Lincoln of our tale! Les hommes sont rares, and here is one to remember. Such a creation, of itself, lifts Two Men quite above the range of ordinary novels. The author's dramatic gift is illustrated by the picturesque and tragic episode of the quadroon mother and her daughters, the crime of Parke Auster, the fate of Charlotte—that beautiful, helpless, exotic flower of the tropics, blighted in the pitiless North.
Such a book will bear study. I have read it often, each time with a stronger perception of its author's individuality. Mrs. Stoddard's other novels, her short stories, her fugitive poems, are marked by the same qualities—they could be the work of no hand save her own. All seek to answer Parke Auster's question: "Such revelations come so unexpectedly from those who are the nearest to us! There is something appalling behind the screen of every-day life, countenance, custom, clothes. What is it?" Their faults, moreover, are characteristic. A few more readers, a quicker understanding of her work,—there being "something of summer even in the hum of insects"—would have stimulated her to the frequent labor which results in constructive perfection. Yet the wilding flavor of these early novels might have been lost in the process. Let us take them as they are, for so they are worth taking.
- A Critical Estimate of Mrs. Stoddard's Novels. Introduction (revised version) to TWO MEN. Philadelphia: Henry T. Coates & Co., 1901.