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WHICH are the great short stories of the English language? Not a bad basis for a debate! This I am sure of: that there are far fewer supremely good short stories than there are supremely good long books. It takes more exquisite skill to carve the cameo than the statue. But the strangest thing is that the two excellences seem to be separate and even antagonistic. Skill in the one by no means ensures skill in the other. The great masters of our literature, Fielding, Scott, Dickens, Thackeray, Reade, have left no single short story of outstanding merit behind them, with the possible exception of Wandering Willie's Tale in "Red Gauntlet." On the other hand, men who have been very great in the short story, Stevenson, Poe, and Bret Harte, have written no great book. The champion sprinter is seldom a five-miler as well.
Well, now, if you had to choose your team whom would you put in? You have not really a large choice. What are the points by which you judge them? You want strength, novelty, compactness, intensity of interest, a single vivid impression left upon the mind. Poe is the master of all. I may remark by the way that it is the sight of his green cover, the next in order upon my favorite shelf, which has started this train of thought. Poe is, to my mind, the supreme original short story writer of all time. His brain was like a seed-pod full of seeds which flew carelessly around, and from which have sprung nearly all our modern types of story. Just think of what he did in his offhand, prodigal fashion, seldom troubling to repeat a success, but pushing on to some new achievement. To him must be ascribed the monstrous progeny of writers on the detection of crime — "quorum pars parva fui!” Each may find some little development of his own, but his main art must trace back to those admirable stories of Monsieur Dupin, so wonderful in their masterful force, their reticence, their quick dramatic point. After all, mental acuteness is the one quality which can be ascribed to the ideal detective, and when that has once been admirably done, succeeding writers must necessarily be content for all time to follow in the same main track. But not only is Poe the originator of the detective story; all treasure-hunting, cryptogram-solving yarns trace back to his "Gold Bug," just as all pseudo-scientific Verne-and-Wells stories have their prototypes in the "Voyage to the Moon," and the "Case of Monsieur Valdemar." If every man who receives a cheque for a story which owes its springs to Poe were to pay tithe to a monument for the master, he would have a pyramid as big as that of Cheops.
And yet I could only give him two places in my team. One would be for the "Gold Bug," the other for the "Murder in the Rue Morgue." I do not see how either of those could be bettered. But I would not admit perfect excellence to any other of his stories. These two have a proportion and a perspective which are lacking in the others, the horror or weirdness of the idea intensified by the coolness of the narrator and of the principal actor, Dupin in the one case and Le Grand in the other. The same may be said of Bret Harte, also one of those great short story tellers who proved himself incapable of a longer flight. He was always like one of his own gold-miners who struck a rich pocket, but found no continuous reef. The pocket was, alas, a very limited one, but the gold was of the best. "The Luck of Roaring Camp" and "Tennessee's Partner" are both, I think, worthy of a place among my immortals. They are, it is true, so tinged with Dickens as to be almost parodies of the master, but they have a symmetry and satisfying completeness as short stories to which Dickens himself never attained. The man who can read those two stories without a gulp in the throat is not a man I envy.
And Stevenson? Surely he shall have two places also, for where is a finer sense of what the short story can do? He wrote, in my judgment, two masterpieces in his life, and each of them is essentially a short story, though the one happened to be published as a volume. The one is "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde," which, whether you take it as a vivid narrative or as a wonderfully deep and true allegory, is a supremely fine bit of work. The other story of my choice would be "The Pavilion on the Links" — the very model of dramatic narrative. That story stamped itself so clearly on my brain when I read it in Cornhill that when I came across it again many years afterwards in volume form, I was able instantly to recognize two small modifications of the text — each very much for the worse — from the original form. They were small things, but they seemed somehow like a chip on a perfect statue. Surely it is only a very fine work of art which could leave so definite an impression as that. Of course, there are a dozen other of his stories which would put the average writer's best work to shame, all with the strange Stevenson glamour upon them, of which I may discourse later, but only to those two would I be disposed to admit that complete excellence which would pass them into such a team as this.
And who else? If it be not an impertinence to mention a contemporary I should certainly have a brace from Rudyard Kipling. His power, his compression, his dramatic sense, his way of glowing suddenly into a vivid flame, all mark him as a great master. But which are we to choose from that long and varied collection, many of which have claims to the highest? Speaking from memory, I should say that the stories of his which have impressed me most are "The Drums of the Fore and Aft," "The Man who Would be King," "The Man who Was," and "The Brushwood Boy." Perhaps, on the whole, it is the first two which I should choose to add to my list of masterpieces.
They are stories which invite criticism and yet defy it. The great batsman at cricket is the man who can play an unorthodox game, take every liberty which is denied to inferior players, and yet succeed brilliantly in the face of his disregard of law. So it is here. I should think the model of these stories is the most dangerous that any young writer could follow. There is digression, that most deadly fault in the short narrative; there is incoherence, there is want of proportion which makes the story stand still for pages and bound forward in a few sentences. But genius overrides all that, just as the great cricketer hooks the off ball and glides the straight one to leg. There is a dash, an exuberance, a full-blooded, confident mastery which carries everything before it. Yes, no team of immortals would be complete which did not contain at least two representatives of Kipling.
And now whom? Nathaniel Hawthorne never appealed in the highest degree to me. The fault, I am sure, is my own, but I always seemed to crave stronger fare than he gave me. It was too subtle, too elusive, for effect. Indeed, I have been more affected by some of the short work of his son Julian, though I can quite understand the high artistic claims which the senior writer has, and the delicate charm of his style. There is Bulwer Lytton as a claimant. His "Haunted and the Haunters" is the very best ghost story that I know. As such I should include it in my list. There was a story, too, in one of the old Blackwoods — "Metempsychosis" it was called, which left so deep an impression upon my mind that I should be inclined, though it is many years since I read it, to number it with the best. Another story which has the characteristics of great work is Grant Allen's "John Creedy." So good a story upon so philosophic a basis deserves a place among the best. There is some first-class work to be picked also from the contemporary work of Wells and of Quiller-Couch which reaches a high standard. One little sketch — "Old Œson" in "Noughts and Crosses" — is, in my opinion, as good as anything of the kind which I have ever read.
And all this didactic talk comes from looking at that old green cover of Poe. I am sure that if I had to name the few books which have really influenced my own life I should have to put this one second only to Macaulay's Essays. I read it young when my mind was plastic. It stimulated my imagination and set before me a supreme example of dignity and force in the methods of telling a story. It is not altogether a healthy influence, perhaps. It turns the thoughts too forcibly to the morbid and the strange.
He was a saturnine creature, devoid of humor and geniality, with a love for the grotesque and the terrible. The reader must himself furnish the counteracting qualities or Poe may become a dangerous comrade. We know along what perilous tracks and into what deadly quagmires his strange mind led him, down to that gray October Sunday morning, when he was picked up, a dying man, on the sidewalk at Baltimore, at an age which should have seen him at the very prime of his strength and his manhood.
I have said that I look upon Poe as the world's supreme short story writer. His nearest rival, I should say, was Maupassant. The great Norman never rose to the extreme force and originality of the American, but he had a natural inherited power, an inborn instinct towards the right way of making his effects, which mark him as a great master. He produced stories because it was in him to do so, as naturally and as perfectly as an apple tree produces apples. What a fine, sensitive, artistic touch it is! How easily and delicately the points are made! How clear and nervous is his style, and how free from that redundancy which disfigures so much of our English work! He pares it down to the quick all the time.
I cannot write the name of Maupassant without recalling what was either a spiritual interposition or an extraordinary coincidence in my own life. I had been traveling in Switzerland and had visited, among other places, that Gemmi Pass, where a huge cliff separates a French from a German canton. On the summit of this cliff was a small inn, where we broke our journey. It was explained to us that, although the inn was inhabited all the year round, still for about three months in winter it was utterly isolated, because it could at any time only be approached by winding paths on the mountain side, and when these became obliterated by snow it was impossible either to come up or to descend. They could see the lights in the valley beneath them, but were as lonely as if they lived in the moon. So curious a situation naturally appealed to one's imagination, and I speedily began to build up a short story in my own mind, depending upon a group of strong antagonistic characters being penned up in this inn, loathing each other and yet utterly unable to get away from each other's society, every day bringing them nearer to tragedy. For a week or so, as I traveled, I was turning over the idea.
At the end of that time I returned through France. Having nothing to read I happened to buy a volume of Maupassant's Tales which I had never seen before. The first story was called "L'Auberge" (The Inn) — and as I ran my eye down the printed page I was amazed to see the two words, "Kandersteg" and "Gemini Pass." I settled down and read it with ever-growing amazement. The scene was laid in the inn I had visited. The plot depended on the isolation of a group of people through the snowfall. Everything that I imagined was there, save that Maupassant had brought in a savage hound.
Of course, the genesis of the thing is clear enough. He had chanced to visit the inn, and had been impressed as I had been by the same train of thought. All that is quite intelligible. But what is perfectly marvelous is that in that short journey I should have chanced to buy the one book in all the world which would prevent me from making a public fool of myself, for who would ever have believed that my work was not an imitation? I do not think that the hypothesis of coincidence can cover the facts. It is one of several incidents in my life which have convinced me of spiritual interposition — of the promptings of some beneficent force outside ourselves, which tries to help us where it can. The old Catholic doctrine of the Guardian Angel is not only a beautiful one, but has in it, I believe, a real basis of truth.
Or is it that our subliminal ego, to use the jargon of the new psychology, or our astral, in the terms of the new theology, can learn and convey to the mind that which our own known senses are unable to apprehend? But that is too long a side track for us to turn down it.
When Maupassant chose he could run Poe close in that domain of the strange and weird which the American had made so entirely his own. Have you read Maupassant's story called "La Horla"? That is as good a bit of diablerie as you could wish for. And the Frenchman has, of course, far the broader range. He has a keen sense of humor, breaking out beyond all decorum in some of his stories, but giving a pleasant sub-flavor to all of them. And yet, when all is said, who can doubt that the austere and dreadful American is far the greater and more original mind of the two?
Talking of weird American stories, have you ever read any of the works of Ambrose Bierce? I have one of his works there, "In the Midst of Life." This man had a flavor quite his own, and was a great artist in his way. It is not cheering reading, but it leaves its mark upon you, and that is the proof of good work.
I have often wondered where Poe got his style. There is a somber majesty about his best work, as if it were carved from polished jet, which is peculiarly his own. I dare say if I took down that volume I could light anywhere upon a paragraph which would show you what I mean. This is the kind of thing —
"Now there are fine tales in the volumes of the Magi — in the iron-bound melancholy volumes of the Magi. Therein, I say, are glorious histories of the heaven and of the earth, and of the mighty sea — and of the genius that overruled the sea, and the earth, and the lofty heaven. There was much lore, too, in the sayings which were said by the Sybils, and holy, holy things were heard of old by the dim leaves which trembled round Dodona, but as Allah liveth, that fable which the Demon told me as he sat by my side in the shadow of the tomb, I hold to be the most wonderful of all." Or this sentence: "And then did we, the seven, start from our seats in horror, and stand trembling and aghast, for the tones in the voice of the shadow were not the tones of any one being, but of a multitude of beings, and, varying in their cadences from syllable to syllable, fell duskily upon our ears in the well-remembered and familiar accents of many thousand departed friends."
Is there not a sense of austere dignity? No man invents a style. It always derives back from some influence, or, as is more usual, it is a compromise between several influences. I cannot trace Poe's. And yet if Hazlitt and De Quincey had set forth to tell weird stories they might have developed something of the kind.
Now, by your leave, we will pass on to my noble edition of "The Cloister and the Hearth," the next volume on the left.
I notice, in glancing over my rambling remarks, that I classed "Ivanhoe" as the second historical novel of the century. I dare say there are many who would give "Esmond" the first place, and I can quite understand their position, although it is not my own. I recognize the beauty of the style, the consistency of the character-drawing, the absolutely perfect Queen Anne atmosphere. There was never an historical novel written by a man who knew his period so thoroughly. But, great as these virtues are, they are not the essential in a novel. The essential in a novel is interest, though Addison unkindly remarked that the real essential was that the pastrycooks should never run short of paper. Now "Esmond" is, in my opinion, exceedingly interesting during the campaigns in the Lowlands, and when our Machiavelian hero, the Duke, comes in, and also whenever Lord Mohun shows his ill-omened face; but there are long stretches of the story which are heavy reading. A preeminently good novel must always advance and never mark time. "Ivanhoe" never halts for an instant, and that just makes its superiority as a novel over "Esmond," though as a piece of literature I think the latter is the more perfect.
No, if I had three votes, I should plump them all for "The Cloister and the Hearth," as being our greatest historical novel, and, indeed, as being our greatest novel of any sort. I think I may claim to have read most of the more famous foreign novels of last century, and (speaking only for myself and within the limits of my reading) I have been more impressed by that book of Reade's and by Tolstoi's "Peace and War" than by any others. They seem to me to stand at the very top of the century's fiction. There is a certain resemblance in the two — the sense of space, the number of figures, the way in which characters drop in and drop out. The Englishman is the more romantic. The Russian is the more real and earnest. But they are both great.
Think of what Reade does in that one book. He takes the reader by the hand, and he leads him away into the Middle Ages, and not a conventional study-built Middle Age, but a period quivering with life, full of folk who are as human and real as a bus-load in Oxford Street. He takes him through Holland, he shows him the painters, the dykes, the life. He leads him down the long line of the Rhine, the spinal marrow of Mediæval Europe. He shows him the dawn of printing, the beginnings of freedom, the life of the great mercantile cities of South Germany, the state of Italy, the artist-life of Rome, the monastic institutions on the eve of the Reformation. And all this between the covers of one book, so naturally introduced, too, and told with such vividness and spirit. Apart from the huge scope of it, the mere study of Gerard's own nature, his rise, his fall, his regeneration, the whole pitiable tragedy at the end, make the book a great one. It contains, I think, a blending of knowledge with imagination, which makes it stand alone in our literature. Let any one read the "Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini," and then Charles Reade's picture of Mediæval Roman life, if he wishes to appreciate the way in which Reade has collected his rough ore and has then smelted it all down in his fiery imagination. It is a good thing to have the industry to collect facts. It is a greater and a rarer one to have the tact to know how to use them when you have got them. To be exact without pedantry, and thorough without being dull, that should be the ideal of the writer of historical romance.
Reade is one of the most perplexing figures in our literature. Never was there a man so hard to place. At his best he is the best we have. At his worst he is below the level of Surreyside melodrama. But his best have weak pieces, and his worst have good. There is always silk among his cotton, and cotton among his silk. But, for all his flaws, the man who, in addition to the great book of which I have already spoken, wrote "It is Never Too Late to Mend," "Hard Cash," "Foul Play," and "Griffith Gaunt," must always stand in the very first rank of our novelists.
There is a quality of heart about his work which I recognize nowhere else. He so absolutely loves his own heroes and heroines, while he so cordially detests his own villains, that he sweeps your emotions along with his own. No one has ever spoken warmly enough of the humanity and the lovability of his women. It is a rare gift — very rare for a man — this power of drawing a human and delightful girl. If there is a better one in nineteenth-century fiction than Julia Dodd I have never had the pleasure of meeting her. A man who could draw a character so delicate and so delightful, and yet could write such an episode as that of the Robber Inn in "The Cloister and the Hearth," adventurous romance in its highest form, has such a range of power as is granted to few men. My hat is always ready to come off to Charles Reade.