In a sense, the novel, as defined above in Chapter I, is the novel of manners. In other words, all novels, committed as they are to “render reality closely and in comprehensive detail,” must report the manners of the characters, must report, that is, all the special attitudes, gestures, and conventional responses people make because they belong to a certain class, a certain time, or a certain school of thought or conduct. This will always be a large part of the reality the novelist renders, whether he writes like Jane Austen or Theodore Dreiser.
But we do not call Dreiser a novelist of manners. The author of Emma and Pride and Prejudice is perhaps not the greatest novelist of manners, but she is the purest, and we can take her kind of novel as the archetype of the form. It is distinguished from the novel in general because it concentrates so calculatedly on manners, because it focuses on a particular social class or group of classes above thelower economic levels, and because it has an affinity in tone and method with the high comedy of the stage. Most important of all, such moral standards as are advanced by the author are those of society (probably not those of any one class) or have, at least, a concrete social sanction and utility. According to these standards, aberrations and distortions of conduct in individuals will be corrected (as in Pride and Prejudice or Howells's Vacation of the Kelwyns or James's The Ambassadors) or if these aberrations are incorrigible in any individual, he may be destroyed or expelled by society (as in The Great Gatsby or James's The Europeans or Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence). And very often, of course, the standard of judgment invoked will not be any particular social convention but the socially shared sagacity known as “common sense.” Very often too we find common sense being brought into play to correct ideals which are fanatical or absurdly impractical and are at odds, therefore, with the necessary compromises and imperfections of any social order.
In Europe some of the greatest novelists have been expert practitioners in this genre: Cervantes, Fielding, Stendhal, Balzac, Tolstoy, Miss Austen herself. But in America, with the exception of Henry James, the novelists of manners are among the writers of second or third rank: Edith Wharton, Ellen Glasgow, Howells, John O'Hara, J. P. Marquand, Sinclair Lewis, Scott Fitzgerald. The great writers, such as Melville, Hawthorne, or Faulkner, sometimes approach the novel of manners—as in Pierre, The House of the Seven Gables, The Blithedale Romance, or The Sound and the Fury. But it is not their natural style, they seldom sustain the tone, and there is always something else in these books more arresting than the observation of manners.
The reasons for this contrast are not obscure. For one thing, as Cooper complained, there are no manners in America to observe, compared, that is, with Europe. And what manners there are are nearly uniform among all Americans. This is of course not literally true, either ofCooper's time or ours. But the novelist needs a more vivid variety of manners than, so far, he has discovered in this country. Also, there is the persistent distrust of or simple lack of interest in the idea of society itself, so that it seems unnatural to most American writers to suppose that social conventions and laws are beneficial to the individual. Even in Henry James, great novelist of manners though he is, moral value is likely to be personal and intuitive, and to rest less in convention than in the possible native excellence of human nature, and although some of its ends are social, it is not derived from any social order. True, James's interests and commitments lead him to advance a large and perhaps rather vague ideal of social honor and benignity. But he appeals, as surely as Cooper, Melville, Mark Twain, Faulkner, and Hemingway, to a personal sense of Tightness as the source and warrant of moral value.
The European novel of manners has always achieved its effect by bringing people of different social class into conflict. But in America nearly everyone a novelist of manners might be interested in has been middle-class, and has very likely prided himself on manners indistinguishable from a lower class which is always incipiently middle-class itself. Only in Cooper's New York and Westchester, in old New England, in the old South, in Mrs. Wharton's New York, in Ellen Glasgow's Richmond, and perhaps one or two other places, like G. W. Cable's New Orleans, have there been momentarily settled social conditions involving contrasting classes with contrasting manners.
On the whole our novelists have not been interested in social manners but in “personalities of transcendent value,” as Van Wyck Brooks called Henry James's characters, personalities who transcend among other things the amenities and discipline of social intercourse. It does not matter very much on board the Pequod that Ahab is a bourgeois entrepreneur, Starbuck a petty bourgeois, and Ishmael an aristocrat. Such social differences matter scarcely more at a table in a Paris cafe described by Hemingway in The SunAlso Rises. We understand characters in Melville and Hemingway, as we do in most American writers, by what they are at heart. And this is not shown to us, except superficially, by their differences in manners, because the decorum they display is their personal way of living what they believe in or doing what they are fated to do. We are asked by these novelists to judge characters, not by measuring them against socially derived values, but by their adherence to an idea of conduct which is personal, intuitive, and stoic, and which, though it may come round to the universal values of Christianity and democracy, does so without much social mediation.
So far, then, the American novelist of manners has been more at the mercy of his environment than has the European—in the sense that the American social scene has not been so interesting, various, and colorful as the European. The novelist who undertakes to reflect our social scene, or some segment of it, in literal detail, as Sinclair Lewis did in Babbitt or Howells in A Modern Instance or Mrs. Wharton in The Age of Innocence, finds that not all his wit and perspicuity can save his novel from reflecting too strongly the comparative social dullness of America.
Whenever it turns out to be a brilliant and memorable book, the American novel of manners will also be a romance; more than likely the observation of manners and the painting of the social scene will be a by-product of the romance that really engages the author's mind. There may thus be some utility in considering from this point of view, as I do in the ensuing pages, three novels of manners: The Great Gatsby, G. W. Cable's The Grandissimes, and Howells's The Vacation of the Kelwyns. So apparently odd a conjunction of books may call for explanation. The reader might well expect to encounter in any discussion of the novel of manners Mrs. Wharton's Age of Innocence, Ellen Glasgow's Romantic Comedians or The Sheltered Life, any one of several of James's books, and so on. My reason for considering the three books I do is first of all my specialaffection for them, which I hope the reader will indulge. But more important they are original novels, which advanced, each in its way, the art of the novel in America— despite the fact that two of them have exerted no observable influence and have remained virtually unknown. The Age of Innocence is an excellent novel of manners but there is nothing original in its conception, except the peculiarly bleak pessimism of Mrs. Wharton's temperament, just as there is nothing really original in Miss Glasgow's work, fine as some of it is, beyond the feminine narcissism that almost ruined her as an artist. To embark on a discussion of James as a novelist of manners would be to embark on a complete book about James. Finally, I have wanted to resurrect, if possible, Cable's Grandissimes and Howells's Vacation of the Kelwyns.
I have arranged the three novels in what seems to be a decreasing order of inner tension and dramatic power. Gatsby is one of those serious comedies that are finally indistinguishable from tragedy. The Grandissimes does not achieve the tragic effect—its darker tones are those of melodrama. The Vacation of the Kelwyns is one of those rarities in American fiction—a novel that celebrates, without becoming vapid, the relaxation of the will and what Lionel Trilling, after Wordsworth, calls the “sentiment of Being,” and in itself exemplifies these amiable and vital qualities.
By thus arranging these three books I have hoped to suggest anew that the American literary mind is not necessarily fated to move always toward high tensions, extreme situations, and unresolved contradictions, even though it usually has done so when it has been at its best. Luckily it moves also toward the kind of easy native connection with life which is celebrated, by all three novelists discussed in this chapter, but most fully by Howells. It remains only to say that I have written about Gatsby on the assumption that the reader is fairly familiar with it. My assumption that most readers do not know The Grandissimes and The Vacation of the Kelwyns is based on the fact that neither has been reprinted in recent times.
Lionel Trilling speaks of Gatsby as follows: “To the world it is anomalous in America, as in the novel it is anomalous in Gatsby, that so much raw power should be haunted by envisioned romance. Yet in that anomaly lies, for good and bad, much of the truth of our national life, as, at the present moment, we think about it.” The special charm of Gatsby rests in its odd combination of romance with a realistic picture of raw power—the raw power of the money that has made a plutocracy and the raw power the self-protective conventions of this plutocracy assume when they close in a united front against an intruder.
Gatsby gives us an unforgettable, even though rather sketchy, sense of the 1920's and what the people were like who lived in them. We know what the people were like because we are shown the publicly recognized gestures and attitudes by which they declare themselves as belonging to a certain ambiance at a certain time. Their manners (perhaps one should say their mannered lack of manners) are a clearly minted currency as readily negotiable as the money they all have such a lot of. At the same time the hero who comes to his spectacular grief is not only a man of the 1920's but a figure of legend. No one can doubt that the legend engaged the imagination of the author more deeply than the society in which the legend is played out.
Mr. Trilling attributes the continuing freshness and significance of Gatsby to “Fitzgerald's grasp—both in the sense of awareness and appropriation—of the traditional resources available to him.” And this will apply whether we are thinking of the book as a romance or as a novel of manners. The story of Jay Gatsby is in origin an archetype of European legend and it is fascinating to observe how, in Fitzgerald'shands, this legend is modified and in some ways fundamentally changed in accordance with American ideas.
The European (perhaps universal) archetype has been memorably described, in relation to the novel, by Mr. Trilling himself. In his Introduction to The Princess Casamassima, Mr. Trilling refers to the legend of “the Young Man from the Provinces” which finds expression in certain great novels, such as Stendhal's The Red and the Black, Dickens's Great Expectations, and Balzac's Pere Goriot. The young hero of the legend is Likely to come from obscure or mean beginnings. There is some mystery about his birth; perhaps he is really a foundling prince. He is “equipped with poverty, pride and intelligence” and he passes through a series of adventures which resemble the “tests” that confront the would-be knight in Arthurian legend. He has an enormous sense of his own destiny. The purpose of his quest is to “enter life,” which he does by launching a campaign to conquer and subdue to his own purposes the great world that regards him as an insignificant outsider. “He is concerned to know how the political and social world are run and enjoyed,” as Mr. Trilling writes; “he wants a share of power and pleasure and in consequence he takes real risks, often of his life.”
At this point one begins to see how much and how little Gatsby belongs to the tradition of the Young Man from the Provinces. He has the necessary obscure beginning, bom Gatz somewhere in the Middle West. He has come to the more socially advanced East and made his way to a position of wealth and influence. He is more or less a mythic figure; he seems to have sprung from “a Platonic conception of himself” rather than from any real place; he is rumored to be the nephew of the Kaiser; he pretends to be an Oxford man and to have lived like a young rajah in all the capitals of Europe; he has committed himself “to the following of a grail.” A good deal of this legendary build-up is comic in tone and satiric in intent. But Arthur Mizener, Fitzgerald's biographer, is correct in saying that the ironiesof The Great Gatsby are never allowed to destroy the credence and respect given by the author to the legend of his hero. The life and death of Gatsby inevitably call to the mind of Nick Carroway, the narrator, the ideal meaning of America itself. Gatsby somehow invokes the poetic appeal of the frontier and his pursuit of the ideal recalls once again the “transitory enchanted moment when man must first have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.”
These concluding lines are so impassioned and impressive, even if a little overopulent in the Conradian manner, that we feel the whole book has been driving toward this moment of ecstatic contemplation, toward this final moment of transcendence. What, at the end, has been affirmed? Apparently it is not the “power and pleasure” derived from knowing and mastering “the political and social world.” At the end of Pere Goriot what is affirmed by Eugene Rastignac's challenge to Paris is this “power and pleasure.” And whereas it is true that Julien Sorel in The Red and the Black seeks an ideal transcendence, in the manner of many French heroes, from those of Racine to those of Malraux, his field of operations is social to a far greater degree than Gatsby's is ever shown to be.
Gatsby does not seek to understand and master society as an end; and we have to take it on faith that he has understood and mastered it at all—was he really a bootlegger and a dealer in dubious stocks? Of course he was, but neither he nor his author nor his author's narrator, himself a bond salesman, shows any interest in these activities. Nor has Gatsby's shadowy battle with the world been, as it is for his European counterparts, a process of education and disillusion. He does not pass from innocence to experience —if anything it is the other way around, the youth who climbed aboard the millionaire's yacht being more worldlythan the man who gazes longingly at the green light across the bay. In The Great Gatsby society and its ways, so far as the hero knows them, are not ends but means to a transcendent ideal. Finally, as Nick Carroway thinks, the ideal is so little connected with reality that it consists merely in having an ideal. Ideality, the longing for transcendence, these are good in themselves. So Nick Carroway implies when he shouts across the lawn to Gatsby, “They're a rotten crowd. You're worth the whole damn bunch put together.” For even though Carroway “disapproved of him from beginning to end,” he is forced thus to pay tribute to Gatsby's “incorruptible dream.” Nor is the abstractness of Gatsby's dream modified by the fact that it centers around Daisy Buchanan, whom he has loved and lost. He does not see her as she is; he does not seem to have a sexual passion for her. He sees her merely as beauty and innocence —a flower, indeed, growing natively on the “fresh green breast of the new world.”
Fitzgerald suggests near the end of the book that Gatsby is in the legendary line of Benjamin Franklin or Poor Richard. So we see from the self-disciplinary schedule Gatsby had written down as a boy and had always kept with him:
Rise from bed 6:00 A.M.
Dumbbell exercise and wall scaling 6:15-6:30
Study electricity, etc 7:15-8:15 “
and so on down to:
Study needed inventions 7:00-9:00 P.M.
But he is also of the company of Natty Bumppo, Huck Finn, and Melville's Ishmael. For although he is treated with more irony than they, as befits a later worldliness, he shares their ideal of innocence, escape, and the purely personal code of conduct. Like them he derives his values not from the way of the world but from an earlier pastoral ideal.
But Gatsby lived too late. He is made to die sordidly inhis swimming pool, shot by a garage proprietor. He cannot, like Huck Finn, light out for the territory. He cannot achieve even the dubious rebirth of Ishmael in the far Pacific. He cannot die full of years, facing the setting sun and attended by the primeval prairie gods, like Natty Bumppo.
None of these earlier heroes makes an assault on a plutocracy that has settled into a position of power and prestige. That was not an option in their time and place. When Gatsby does this he becomes what his predecessors never were: a tragicomic figure in a social comedy. He does not know how to conform to the class to which Daisy belongs and to this class he seems ridiculous, with his “gorgeous pink rag of a suit,” his preposterous mansion, and his chaotic parties—parties at which ordinary people seem somehow to become themselves fantastic and to assume names like Miss Claudia Hip and the Dancies (I refer here to the inspired list of names, itself a great comic achievement, at the beginning of Chapter 4—there is an only somewhat less brilliant collection of comic names in the description of the masquerade at the beginning of Cable's Grandissimes). In Gatsby, that is, we have a figure who is from one point of view a hero of romance but from another is related to the gulls and fops of high comedy.
No one seems to know what T. S. Eliot meant when he wrote Fitzgerald that Gatsby was the first step forward the American novel had made since Henry James. The statement seems meaningful, however, if we compare Gatsby with James's only novel of similar theme, The American. Christopher Newman is a more relaxed, less willful, and less self-destined figure than Gatsby, but he comes of a similarly legendary America, makes a great deal of money, and vainly pursues a woman who is the flower of a high world forever closed to him. James, however, is content with his pleasure in the odd angularities of the legend of the successful American. And he sends Newman home, baffled and saddened by his rejection but not mortally hurt. It is a part of the fate of both Newman and Gatsby that theyhave information with which they could avenge themselves on their highly placed antagonists and that out of magnanimity they both refuse to do so.
But Fitzgerald has made more of the legend. For whereas Newman remains an odd though appealing stick of a man Gatsby has a tragic recklessness about him, an inescapably vivid and memorable destiny. He has something of that almost divine insanity we find in Hamlet or Julien Sorel or Don Quixote. Fitzgerald's great feat was to have opened out this possibility and to have made his American hero act in a drama where none had acted before. For although there had been reckless and doomed semilegendary heroes in American fiction, none had been made to play his part in a realistically presented social situation. Fitzgerald opened out the possibility, but scarcely more. It was not in him to emulate except for a brilliant moment the greatest art.
George Washington Cable is remembered, if at all, as a local colorist who wrote quaint, pathetic, and humorous tales about Creole life in Louisiana, and who sometimes gave his characters a dialect speech too irksome to read. People who have gone beyond the tales and sketches in Old Creole Days to Cable's novels remember them as being rather incoherent, charming perhaps, but marred by sentimentality and a facetious humor. On the whole these notions about Cable are true. Up to a point, they are even true about The Grandissimes (1880). But in this novel about life in New Orleans in 1803 Cable transcended his usual limitations and wrote a minor masterpiece.
Reading this novel today one can see that there were good reasons why in the early 1880's Cable was regarded as the peer of Henry James, Howells, and Mark Twain,why in 1883 Matthew Arnold—an unlikely reader of Cable, it would seem—proclaimed himself “perfectly delighted” with Cable's books. And the fact is that there are things in The Grandissimes that are beyond the reach of any of Cable's contemporaries. James could never have presented the story of the slave woman Clemence who, being suspected of sorcery, is caught in a bear trap by the Creole aristocrats, hanged, cut down, told to run, and, as she runs, shot, so that she “leaped into the air and fell at full length to the ground, stone dead.” As a novel of political analysis that sees society both in ideological terms and as having “an atmosphere of hints, allusions, faint unspoken admissions, ill-concealed antipathies, unfinished speeches, mistaken identities, and whisperings of hidden strife,” The Grandissimes makes Howells's most ambitious social novel, A Hazard of New Fortunes, seem like child's play. Cable's powers of intellectual analysis as well as his power of presenting manners and morals dramatically and symbolically are not matched in Mark Twain, with the possible exception of Pudd'nhead Wilson. And if he shares with Mark Twain a taste for American humor, he also has the more intellectual comic sense of the novelist of manners.
Nor does this exhaust the list of Cable's remarkable, though unfulfilled, talents. There is in The Grandissimes a truly Faulknerian strain of dark melodrama. The best example of this is the story of Bras Coupe, a heroic Negro prince brought from Africa in the slave ship Egalite. He refuses to work and there follow scenes of violence, of flight and pursuit, and of torture which are presented with tremendous effect. The story is made to serve as a kind of archetypal image which gives meaning and resonance to the book. It is referred to at various points and is told in the middle of the novel by three different persons on the same day.
As a novel of ideas which describes an intricate society full of both demarcations and ambiguities of class, caste, and race, The Grandissimes is something of a rarity inAmerican fiction. In the life of New Orleans at the moment in 1803 when the American government was trying to placate and absorb the resisting Louisianans, Cable had an ideal subject. He had made extensive studies of New Orleans as a newspaperman and during the writing of The Grandissimes he was making an investigation for the Census Bureau of “The History and Present Condition of New Orleans.” He was thus able to give his novel the solid sociological foundation for which Edmund Wilson praises it in an essay of some years ago. He had also one of the classic situations of the novel of manners—the dissolution of one class (the Creole aristocracy) and its replacement by another (the bourgeois “Americains”).
Old Creole Days and Mme. Delphine, among Cable's early writings, are well worth reading. Despite their realism, however, Cable put into them a rather gratuitous mystification about who is who and who is doing what, and it was only in The Grandissimes that he made mystification into mystery, that he dealt, in other words, with some of the inscrutable facts at the foundations of modern society and did his best to articulate these facts dramatically and ideologically. Only one other nineteenth-century American novel does this as well—James's Princess Casamassima, and if Cable has the less piercing intuition and the more parochial subject he in part makes up for it by being more at home among general political ideas than James.
Appropriate to the mood of mystery, foreboding, subdued violence, and confused identities, the novel begins with a masquerade. As we go on, it takes us some time to straighten out the characters. Two heroes, however, soon emerge, Honore Grandissime and Joseph Frowenfeld. Honore is the scion of his family. In his ancestors the Creole pride has been very strong—their “preposterous” pride, as Cable says, “apathetic, fantastic, suicidal, lethargic and ferocious as an alligator.” In the well-known manner of American aristocracies, this one has grown far more reactionary than its European counterparts. Educated in Paris,Honore has discovered how isolated from the modern world his family has become and he is determined to liberalize its ways.
Frowenfeld is a young pharmacist fresh from Philadelphia. He is full of reforming zeal and progressive principles, a fierce democrat. In the person of Frowenfeld, Cable finds a way to make capital out of the Jamesian theme of the innocent Yankee whose views are enlarged and humanized by contact with an old, rich, corrupt social order.
The rather preachy Frowenfeld and the contemplative Honore Grandissime learn a good deal from each other because of their differences. But they have something in common too—namely they are both in quest of reality. Frowenfeld is “as fond of the abstract” as the Creoles are “ignorant of the concrete.” And much of the moral action of the novel is concerned with the successful attempt of the two friends to come, in their different ways, into contact with social reality as well as with their own deeper emotional natures. Cable himself feared that he had failed to make a memorable character in Frowenfeld because of the difficulty of making plausible a hero who is too “goody-goody.” He was perhaps unnecessarily concessive here, although of the two, Honore Grandissime is the more substantial and significant figure.
Cable himself did not descend from the Creole caste. Although he was born in New Orleans, his mother was of Puritan New England stock and his father came from a Virginian family. He clearly admired the amenity of Creole life and treated it with a good deal of sympathy. As a young man he had fought in the Confederate cavalry (although he was only five feet six and never weighed much over no pounds). Yet he had formed liberal political ideals and deplored the injustices upon which Creole society had been based. His knowledge of the world made him contemptuous of the helplessness and ignorance of the Creoles, who seemed never to touch in any creative way either reality or passion except as these were mediated by their slaves. Thefastidious and neurotic isolation of the Creoles Cable suggests by his description of the Grandissime mansion which is raised above the ground on fifteen-foot pillars and by his picture of the family here in their self-congratulatory, ritual reminiscences while beyond the river the slaves toil in “a land hung in mourning, darkened by gigantic cypresses, submerged; a land of reptiles, silence, shadow, decay.” No wonder such a family should fear reality and that Honore should lament that “I am but a dilettante, whether in politics, in philosophy, morals, or religion. I am afraid to go deeply into anything, lest it should make ruin in my name, my family, and my property.”
Yet despite his fear of going deeply, Honore's aristocratic background and contemplative nature have made him aware of political realities unknown to less disillusioned minds. The difficulties involved in adjusting New Orleans to free institutions are the topic of the densely meaningful chapter called “That Night.” Here the new Yankee governor and Honore Grandissime discuss the problem of making a government “freer than the people wish it.” And when the governor utters the conventional idea that no community will sacrifice itself for mere ideas, Honore says, “You speak like a true Anglo-Saxon” and assures him that New Orleans is just the kind of community to do so. As the discussion goes on, the dark tangle of passions and interest that underlie politics is suggested by the ritual chant and Calinda dance in a slave-yard, the purport of which is a satire of the ruling classes, the point being that the pride of the Grandissimes must now humble itself before the Yankees.
There is a good deal of highly effective symbolism in Cable's novel, mostly having to do with light and dark and the ambiguity not only of racial strains but of reality itself. This symbolism (used with equal effectiveness in American literature perhaps only in Light in August and in Melville's Benito Cereno) stems from the dread and guilt which remain unconscious in most of the characters but is articulatedby Honore when to Frowenfeld he professes himself amazed at “the shadow of the Ethiopian—the length, the blackness of that shadow.” We sit, he says, “in a horrible darkness.”
Nevertheless the novel should not be regarded as “symbolistic”; it is not a drama of meaning. We do not have in The Grandissimes an epistemological symbolism. The book does not ask the intelligence to concern itself with meaning but rather to grasp and cleave to the concrete conditions of life. We have, as in so many American fictions, a realistic novel tending away from strict realism toward the romance by way of melodrama.
The symbols are involved in the intricacies of experience but (as in Cable's ancestral Calvinism) they move, not toward ambiguity and multiple meaning, as in symbolistic art, but toward ideology and dialectic. The structure of the book is melodramatic. That is, it conceives of life as a hazardous action between very marked, perhaps irreconcilable extremes which, appropriate to the subject, are racial, social, and political extremes. As in so many of the novels we are considering, alternative fates are offered to the actors —they can transcend the contradictions of their experience by an act of horror, violence, or suicide, or they can momentarily escape the contradictions by a loving connection with the ordinary realities of nature and the humanities of men.
The two heroines of the story, the young widow Aurore Nancanou and her daughter Clothilde, are members of the De Grapion family, which has had an ancient feud with the Grandissimes. Aurore's husband has been killed and her property lost in a duel with Agricola Fusilier, a relative of the Grandissimes and the patriarch of the clan. The ladies are endowed by Cable with perhaps a little too much fine, ineffable femininity. They are creatures of the age of How-ells, and, as women (white women, that is) they will not be questioned too far, nor set too firmly in the world. Yet a sufficient reason for their child-like fragility is supplied by their having in their own way the Creole unworldliness.They are at least appealing and amusing, with their Creole version of English, as when they say things like “Oo dad is, 'Sieur Frowenfel'?” “fo' wad you cryne?” or “doze Creole is lezzy!” And they are human enough to lend much more than a formal interest to the healing of old family differences which is symbolized by the marriage of Honore to Aurore and the union of North and South symbolized by the marriage of Frowenfeld and Clothilde.
In the background of the Nancanou ladies there is the sinister figure of the soothsayer Palmyre Philosophe and the voodoo world she inhabits. A quadroon, Palmyre has in “the clear yellow skin of her cheek” a faint flush that suggests “cold passion.” She has “a barbaric and magnetic beauty that startled the beholder like an unexpected drawing out of a jewelled sword.” Although we are thoughtfully reassured by the author that Palmyre has “that rarest of gifts in one of her tincture, the purity of true womanhood,” he leaves us to adjust this pious idea to the obvious fact that Palmyre's murderous vendetta with Agricola Fusilier and her feline hatred of men, her “femininity without humanity,” are the results of the radical distortions of her strongly passional nature that have been produced by social injustice.
The violence of Palmyre finds its counterpart in the paralyzed will, the deeply stricken silence and passivity of another quadroon, Honore Grandissime's half brother who bears the same name and haunts him throughout the novel, as the dark, invisible side of the moon haunts the light. Yet before his inevitable suicide, there is enough latent violence in him to stab Agricola Fusilier after he has been hit in the face with a cane for refusing to take his hat off.
Cable supplies Agricola Fusilier with a detailed genealogy. He is the descendant of an Indian princess dressed in “swan skins” and the plumes of flamingoes whom an impetuous Creole ancestor had snatched out of the Louisiana canebrake. He has the traits of the Fusiliers, who are like dark hawks among the “lily white” Grandissimes. But, anold man now, he has grown seedy; his beard wags wildly, his clothes are rather dirty and they show the styles of three decades.
Like some dimly remembered ancestor of the Compson or Sartoris families in the novels of Faulkner, Agricola Fusilier is the master of a high rhetoric. Buffoon and savage though he is, there is something moving in his taking up the cause of Frowenfeld after Frowenfeld's pharmacy has been wrecked by resentful Louisianans who consider him a meddling Yankee and lover of Negroes—“You are under the wing of Agricola Fusilier, the old eagle—you are one of my brood—Professor, listen to your old father.” And he rescues the young man “from the laughs and finger-points of the vulgar mass,” calling him, out of sheer noblesse oblige, “my friend—my vicar—my coadjutor—my son.” We remember this moment of atonement later when Agricola Fusilier dies of his knife wounds and pronounces his benediction, “I forgive everyone. A man must die—I forgive—even the enemies of Louisiana.”
This is a moment of pathos and surrender perhaps matched only in the episode where Charlie Keene, the consumptive doctor, walks on the levee at night and looking out over New Orleans muses on the “beautified corruption” of the scene and sighs “dissolution, dissolution.” Dr. Keene, one might add, is involved in a web of hopeless loves that give a lyric quality to Cable's book. He is in love with Clothilde, as Palmyre is with Honore (white) and as Honore (the quadroon) is with Palmyre.
In trying to suggest the quality of The Grandissimes I have inevitably made it sound more compact, intense, and rapid than it actually is. Despite the political intelligence, comic acuity, social passion, and ideological poetry which Cable marshaled in this novel, a good deal of it is written in the rather loose manner of the Howells age. There is some facetiousness, some sentimentality, and too much genteel maundering. One has to be ready to put up with this:
that petted rowdy, the mocking bird, dropped down into the path to offer fight to the horse, and failing in that, flew up again and drove a crow into ignominious retirement
in order to arrive at perfection like this:
from a place of flags and reeds a white crane shot upward, turned, and then, with the slow and stately beat peculiar to her wing, sped away until, against the tallest cypress of the distant forest, she became a tiny white speck on its black, and suddenly disappeared, like one flake of snow.
The most unkind trick time has played on Cable is the decline of the vogue of dialect speech. The vogue was flourishing when Cable wrote and he uses more dialect than a modern novelist would do. He had a rich linguistic store to draw on and a highly developed ear for language, so that we hear at one time or another not only Creole English but Creole French and Negro French and English. The Creole English also varies according to the speaker. Most difficult of all are the few interpolated songs that combine French and African dialects and whose rhythmic pattern and refrains seem to suggest New Orleans jazz.
But perhaps a generation somewhat receptive to the verbal facility of Joyce and Faulkner can rediscover a certain pleasure in the language of a minor virtuoso like Cable. His Creole English is not hard to fathom, and it is impossible not to be delighted by things like, “You know my cousin, Honore Grandissime, w'at give two hund' fifty dolla' to de 'ospill laz mont?” or Raoul Innerarity's allegorical painting of “Louisiana rif-using to hanter de h-Union.”
In the following it is hard to know which is better, the French song or the paraphrase furnished by the Negro singer:
De 'tit zozos—ye te assis—
De 'tit zozos—si la barrier.
De 'tit zozos, qui zabotte;
Qui ca ye di' mo pas conne.
Manzeur-poulet vini simin,
Croupe si ye et croque ye;
Personn' pli' tend' ye zabotte—
De 'tit zozos si la barrier.
Dat mean—two lill birds; dey was sittin' on de fence an' gabbin' togeddah, you know lak you see two young gals sometime', an' you can't mek out w'at dey sayin', even ef dey know demself? H—ya! Chicken hawk come 'long dat road an' jes' set down an' munch 'em, an' nobody can't no mo' hea' deir lill gabbin' on de fence, you know.
Modern literature has taught us again that language is full of comic possibilities. And The Grandissimes has many incidental linguistic contretemps, as when one character says, “Ah lag to teg you apar'” and another asks, “See me alone?”
The Grandissimes is a more complex hybrid than The Great Gatsby; it is richer and more various, but also more cluttered and more loosely written. It possesses in greater volume the standard novelistic devices. There are many characters, and the leading ones are well established in the circumstances of their lives; we watch them, too, as their opinions and feelings change under the pressure of circumstance and of what they come to perceive about themselves and their relation to other people, as well as to ideas and to history itself. No single legendary hero steps to the center of the stage to impose the quality of his life on the whole, as in Gatsby. What happens rather is that a strongly realistic social novel becomes at the same time a poetic melodrama. The charm of The Grandissimes is that like Gatsby, in its different way, it is a peculiarly successful union of the novel of manners with romance.
The subtitle of Howells's novel is “An Idyl of the Middle Eighteen-Seventies.” Published in 1920, it is one of Howells's last novels and quite possibly his best (it was first written in 1910).
The trouble with Howells in general is first of all that he never tried hard enough. There is a real laziness, as well as a prudishness, about his mind, and in his novels he is always making great refusals. He had a furtive, cunning intelligence which perhaps knew more about ordinary American life than any novelist has ever known. But he had little imagination, little power of making a fable, of launching an exciting action, little power even of establishing an atmosphere that could be sustained through a novel. He lacked, as James said, that “grasping imagination” which an American novelist would need if he were to deal fully with American life. What little imagination he had was incapable either of grasping, as imagination, the facts his intelligence perceived or of imparting to his novels a coherent form. His stories are full of unbridged gaps, and he is seldom able to give that indispensable impression, as James always does even in his inferior work, of a coherent action that includes and relates all the elements of the fiction. There is no voice which we can recognize as Howells. There is only the long shelf of thirty-odd novels, which, though they are estimable documents for the critic and historian, contain very few fictional triumphs which are not brought off better by someone else.
It is a pleasure, then, to read this late book. Here, the aged Howells makes a virtue out of not trying very hard, and The Vacation of the Kelwyns is not only charming for its pervasive quality of reminiscence, calm wisdom, and idyllic pleasure in life; it is given a unity of effect by thispervasive quality and by the hard, gritty, comic sense of reality and of human limitation that goes along with it.
The story has to do with Elmer Kelwyn, a professor of historical sociology at Harvard, Mrs. Kelwyn, and their two boys. The Kelwyns are in their forties. They are liberal, genteel, middle-class people, and they have the moral earnestness of their kind, as well as the uncertainty how to face life as they find it outside of their circle of experience. They are more overtly and admittedly jealous of their genteel social position than their more modern counterparts would be. But they live frugally, having only a little money beyond the professor's salary (which means that even at best they can keep only two maids). In the summer they usually board with a farmer or at a hotel, it not being quite suitable to their position to prepare their own meals—indeed Kelwyn remembers positively as larks those few periods in their lives when they did their own cooking. Mrs. Kelwyn is not as intellectual as her husband but is predictably sharper in her social insistences and moral opinions.
As the story opens we find that the Kelwyns have taken a house for the summer in New Hampshire. The house is owned by a neighboring Shaker community, and they take on as tenants a farmer and his wife—the Kites—on the understanding that Mrs. Kite will cook and keep house and that her husband will not only work the farm for his own profit but perform such services for the Kelwyns as saddling the horse. The moral dilemmas of the story appear when it becomes clear that the Kites are, by the Kelwyns's standards, hopelessly unenlightened; they are backward, slovenly, and inefficient. Mr. Kite is morose, profane, suspicious, brutal; and his wife, though pleasant enough, is incapable of planning anything in advance or of improving her primitive methods of housekeeping. The first meal is a minor tragedy: the milk is spotted with dirt from the cellar rafters, the butter is rancid, the bread uneatable, the tea is like tar.
Much of the story has to do with the struggle of the Kelwyns to improve the Kites. They try reason and sympathy; they try threats, though being sensitive people, they are ashamed of having done this. They suffer from the moral ambiguities of the situation. Are the Kites really guilty of malfeasance? Or are they to be regarded as merely the victims of their own ignorance and of the narrow horizons of their degenerate, post-Calvinist provincialism? It is, of course, a veritable dilemma of modern liberalism. Are the Kites to be treated as criminals or unfortunate victims of their environment? And if they are to be treated as both, are they more criminal than victimized or vice versa? And in the matter of practical action, should the Kelwyns fire the Kites or respond to the moral impulse to try to improve them? Meanwhile, the Kelwyns feel more and more degraded by living with such people—as well as with the other local types they come in contact with, all of whom Howells shows in an unfavorable light: the pusillanimous Shaker ladies, the local farmer with his obscene humor about death, the drunken Alison down the road, with his suffering wife and brood of children.
There are two other important characters in the novel. Parthenope Brook, aged twenty-seven, is the Kelwyns's cousin. Elihu Emerance, who seems to be vaguely modeled on Howells himself, is an itinerant schoolteacher, farm hand, playwright, and jack-of-all-trades. Parthenope is the orphaned daughter of two expatriates who have gone to Italy to paint. A product not only of foreign education but very distinctly of the highest Emersonian culture, she is intensely romantic and idealistic. She is one of the tense, beautiful, willful, aspiring American girls, like Imogen Graham in Howells's Indian Summer, whom we meet so often in the fiction of the period. She had been brought up, says Howells, in a culture where “Womanhood stood high in the temple of the cult.” Howells had himself contributed much to the cult of ineffable womanhood which he shared with James, though with markedly less ambiguity than James showed. But here his point is that Parthenope Brook is too good to be true. Her ideals are too abstract and rigid, herwill is too tense. She must be chastened, relaxed, and humanized; and this takes place through her love for Emerance. Like Howells himself, Emerance is socially between the Kites and the Kelwyns. He is the son of humble parents, but he has acquired culture and such manners of the gentleman as are needed in America. His apparently disorganized and aimless life and his being, as he says, “an experimenter” at first disgust Parthenope, who believes that a man should have a single ideal fanatically pursued, as do the heroes of the novels she admires. She is baffled, fascinated, and repelled by the variousness of Emerance's personality and interests, as well as by the touch of raffishness and untidiness that clings to him. “Doesn't Emerson say, 'Be true to the dream of thy youth?'” she asks. To which Emerance irritatingly replies, “Ah, but to which one?”
The process by which Parthenope is at last brought round to accept Emerance as her fiance is the familiar educative one by which pride is relaxed, prejudice dispelled, and ignorance enlightened as to the limited utility of the Ideal. It is a lesson, too, in the necessity of deriving the Ideal from the reality of circumstance, a lesson in the conditioning of the will by the actualities of one's life.
Meanwhile, the Kelwyns too relax their moral tensions, which they had worked up to a high pitch, threatening, finally, to dispossess the Kites. Instead they move out themselves, taking a place nearby which promises not to plunge them into the tensions of moral ideology but to be merely a pleasant and livable place for the rest of the summer. The whole novel thus moves away from the taut clash of moral abstractions and self-righteous aggressions to an idyllic celebration of the mere pleasure of contentedness with life, the vital quotidian nourishment the characters find by relaxing into the easier conditions of their being. There is often a festal tone to the book. A dancing bear, to which Parthenope feeds coffee after it has been stunned by lightning, gypsy fortunetellers, and other odd and picturesque wanderers come in every once in a while as if from some enchanted realm just over the horizon. The novel losesnothing of its sharp edge by leaving even the exasperating Kites in something of a soft glow.
In Chapter 19 of the novel the larger issues Howells has in mind are presented in almost allegorical form. “The simple idyl of the passing days” has become blissful for Parthenope and Emerance because, without yet declaring themselves to each other, they know now that they are in love. As Howells says, “the understanding of their pastoral situation” is “tacit between them.” Their idyl is given variety and point by the itinerants who significantly come and go. First there are some Italians from near Genoa, who play a hand organ and impress Parthenope with their old-world beauty and grace, so different, as she reflects, from the “mannerless uncouthness of the Yankee country-folk.” The Italians are followed by an Irish linen peddler, who enters surly but exits benign. He is followed by a “sailorlike Frenchman,” whom Parthenope sketches and who accepts a ten-cent note with “charming effusion.” And then one day, seeming to “rise from the ground like a human cloud,” a gigantic Negro “with a sullen, bestial face” and “vast, naked feet” appears on the scene to glare with bloodshot eyes at Parthenope and Emerance, before lurking away into the shadow of the woods.
The time is 1876, and the centennial, as Howells stresses in later chapters, is a time for national as well as personal stock-taking and soul-searching. Things are not well. The tramps and wanderers who come and go may be picturesque, but they have taken to the road because there is a depression, as there must be every now and then in an economy which Howells calls “as little regulated as the weather.” In this centennial summer “men without work were prowling the country everywhere.” Parthenope and Emerance reflect on the fact that the old life of rural New England is in decay. The Shaker communities consist entirely of the wistful aged. The local population has fallen off in recent years, and the woods and fields show many abandoned and tumbled-down houses. The old-line Americans have got out of touch with life; their emotional lifehas hardened, shriveled, and dried up. In the local farmers the once vital Puritanism has become a mean-minded, sardonic pessimism. The practical hardiness and adaptability of the old New Englander has become, in the Kites, merely inefficiency, guile, and stupidity. The Kelwyns are genteel and finicking almost to the point of futility. The immigrant Europeans and the gigantic Negro are more vivid and more powerfully alive than the Anglo-Saxons who have gone to seed in the New World.
The idyl of Parthenope and Emerance is thus given an undercurrent of ominousness by the hints and portents of trouble in the land. Yet because of their marriage, a marriage of principle and impulse, we understand that all will be well. That this is the way they themselves understand their union is made clear at the end of Chapter 15. In Parthenope impulse has hardened into a too tense ethical idealism, into principles too rigidly held. In Emerance impulse flows strong and fresh but without direction or purpose. Howells is saying that American life is characterized by this kind of split, that when it occurs in exacerbated form, desiccation and aimlessness ensue, and that ever new modes of reconciliation must be found. Howells's novel is justly called “an idyl” because all the emphasis is on the need for the fresh surge of impulse, the creative, genial welling-up of emotion, the relaxation of willed principle (of which he thinks there will never be a lack).
The Vacation of the Kelwyns imparts a strong sense of the importance of actualities and of the intricate circuit of life that passes from the real to the ideal, from impulse to principle. This sense of things, which we identified with James at the end of Chapter I, is common in the English novel, but not at all common in the American novel, where the real and ideal are characteristically forced far apart into a striking opposition. Nor is Howells's fine sense of human involvement common in the American novel (On this score and others, Lionel Trilling has praised The Vacation of the Kelwyns briefly in his essay on Howells, and although I do not seem to make so much of Howells in general as Mr. Trilling does, it remains true that the book is, as he says, a remarkable one. The main arguments of Mr. Trilling's essays in The Liberal Imagination prepare one for a sympathetic reading of Howells's novel, as they do for many greater novels. These essays implicitly answer, much better than I could, the objections that are likely to be raised against The Vacation of the Kelwyns.), few characters in which will be found sharing this reflection of Kelwyn's: “It is strange how difficult it is to withdraw from any human relation, no matter how provisional. There is always an unexpected wrench, a rending of fibers, a pang of remorse … I think that at the end of every relation in life there is a sort of blind desire, unreasonable and illogical, to have it on again. If it ends abruptly or inimically this is especially the case.” Howells speaks here of what may be called the normality of “human relation,” the dramatization of which makes the substance of so many great English novels. By contrast the assumption of many of the best American novels is that the escape from “human relation,” which Kelwyn calls a “rending of fibres,” is an easy and fortunate thing. Unless, that is, as in the archetypal case of Chillingworth and Dimmesdale, the relation is obsessive and fatal. (It endears Howells to us to think that his most moving expression of the strange difficulty of withdrawing from human relation should have been published in his advanced age, in the year he died.)
Because of its symbolic reconciliations and harmonies The Vacation of the Kelwyns is akin to romance as we find it in Shakespeare's late plays. But, for the same reason, it is somewhat anomalous in American romance. American romance, as I have been saying in this book, does not bank much on the harmonies and reconciliations which pastoral idyl may bring into human life, or on the spiritual health it may bestow upon the future. Pastoral feeling in Cooper, Melville, Mark Twain, and Faulkner is elegiac; the pastoral experience is elusive, momentary, always receding into the past. When it is momentarily recaptured—in the forests with Natty Bumppo, in Typee, on the raft with Huck Finn, inthe Mississippi hunting camp with Ike McCaslin—it is restorative, it recruits the benign emotions, it may even bring about a moral regeneration. But the pastoral experience is rather an escape from society and the complexities of one's own being than the source of ideals and practices which are capable of unifying and healing society, or one's own being.
Despite the elements of romance in the three novels we have been looking at in this chapter—the tragicomic legend in Gatsby, the high melodramatic coloring in The Grandissimes and the idyllic allegory of The Vacation of the Kelwyns—they are all concerned with the realities of man's life in society. They all concern themselves with the processes by which distorted or exaggerated ideals either lead to the defeat of the individual in society or are modified and chastened in him by disillusion and social education. The chastisement of distorted ideals is, as was observed above, a common theme in American literature, beginning with Hawthorne and Melville. But it has not often been memorably presented in the tones of social comedy.
Chapter VIII of The American novel and its tradition by Richard Chase (1957).